Adelbert Ames, 
Fritz Heider and the
Ames Chair Demonstration

by Roy R. Behrens

This essay was published initially in Gestalt Theory: Journal of the Society for Gestalt Theory and Its Applications. Vol 21 No 3 (November 1999). Text and original images copyright © by Roy R. Behrens.
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Adelbert Ames II (1880-1955) was an American lawyer and artist who was known for his discoveries in optical physiology and perceptual psychology. 
    In 1928, while at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, he diagnosed a visual dysfunction called aniseikonia which resulted in the founding of the Dartmouth Eye Institute. 
    Later, in the 1940s and 50s, he developed nearly thirty experiments in perceptual psychology, now commonly referred to as the Ames demonstrations. These ingenious laboratory setups, which are often cited in psychology textbooks, were highly unusual, and they prompted extended discussions among psychologists, philosophers, educators, and artists (Behrens 1994, 1998).
    Fritz Heider (1896-1988) was a Viennese-born Gestalt psychologist, and a colleague of Kurt Koffka at Smith College, where he taught for sixteen years, beginning in 1930. Heider left Smith to join the faculty at the University of Kansas, where he wrote an influential text on The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations, in which he applied Gestalt theory to social psychology. In 1983, after his retirement, he recalled his experiences in a memoir titled The Life of a Psychologist: An Autobiography (Heider 1983). In 1987-88, portions of his notebooks were also published (Benish-Weiner 1987, 1988).
    In Heider’s autobiography, he recalls a series of meetings he had with Ames, the first of which appears to have taken place at Dartmouth, where the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association was held in 1936. 
    Not formally trained in psychology, Ames’ research had been outside of that profession in the sense that he was not often directly in touch with professional psychologists. When the APA gathered at Dartmouth, Heider recalls, "Ames was hopeful that he could get some of the bigwigs interested in his work." As a result, "he invited some of them to his laboratory [on the Dartmouth campus]; but when he showed them his demonstrations, they only shook their heads and said: ‘Very amusing, but we are sorry. What you have there are optical illusions that have been well known to psychology for a long time. All these problems were solved thirty years ago’" (Heider 1983, 140).
    Heider does not say which of his demonstrations Ames exhibited at the APA meeting, but undoubtedly one of the things that he showed was a monocular distorted room. Conceived in 1934 by Ames and first constructed (by his technical assistant, Kimball Whipple) in 1935, the Ames room (as it is now commonly known) is a cleverly misshapen room interior which—providing it is observed through a designated peephole—appears to be perfectly normal in shape. However, viewed from any position other than the peephole, it is evident that the room is extraordinarily distorted: The right wall, for example, is only one half the height of the left wall, and the back wall is clearly a trapezoid, not a rectangle.
    As a result, objects placed within the room appear either to shrink or to grow as they are moved from one corner to another, tilted surfaces appear flat, and trapezoids look rectangular. 
    Further, a marble placed within a trough in the room appears to violate gravity by rolling uphill, while liquid poured from one container to another appears to be strangely displaced to the side.
    And if a subject (while still looking through the peephole) is instructed to touch the back corners of the room with a lecturer’s stick, the result is an awkward sensation in which the person’s visual reality (the perception of the room as normal) is blatantly at odds with his or her kinesthetic reality, so that, predictably, the subject bangs into the wall with the stick on the right side and falls short of touching the wall on the left (Ittelson 1968, 184-189; Behrens 1994).
    The second meeting of Ames and Heider took place in the summer of 1945. While teaching at MIT, Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin, whom Heider had known in Berlin, was invited to visit Ames’s laboratory in Hanover, and he asked Heider to go along.
    "At that time," recalls Heider, "I was fond of a little demonstration that I had made which showed that one can produce the experience of a three-dimensional cube by means of a two-dimensional drawing seen from a particular angle. I do not mean just a drawing of a cube, but a setup that gives one the experience of having a real cube in front of one’s eyes" (Heider 1983, 140-141).
    Heider’s description is confusing. More than likely his demonstration was neither a cube nor a drawing, but an anamorphic wire construction. Anamorphosis or "forced perspective" is a kind of distortion that European artists and stage designers have used since the 15th century. In conventional linear perspective, a painting (or other artwork) is normally viewed from the front. In anamorphic constructions, the picture appears distorted when seen frontally, even indecipherable, the image becoming intelligible only from an eccentric point of view, such as the edge of the painting (Baltrusaitis 1977; Behrens 1994).
    Scores of historic examples exist of anamorphic artworks. Among the best known is a perspective cabinet at the National Gallery in London. Titled Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House, it was created around 1656 by Samuel van Hoogstraten, a pupil of Rembrandt. In this anamorphic simulation of a room interior, all sorts of dramatic distortions are seen when the front wall of the cabinet is removed (the image of a dog, for example, is partly painted on the floor, partly on an adjacent wall). But when the box is closed and one looks only through a designated peephole, the view is that of a normal, undistorted room interior (Brusati 1995).
    Even from a verbal description, the resemblance between the Ames room and Van Hoogstraten’s room is apparent. The former is obviously an anamorphic construction, although there is no evidence that Ames was aware of or influenced by Dutch perspective cabinets. Nor did Heider apparently make a connection between anamorphic art and the Ames demonstrations when he first saw them. But years later he did, as is confirmed by the following notebook entry (added after 1978): "National Gallery London: S. van Hoogstraten, 1627-1678; box with peepholes, illusion of rooms, like Ames" (Benesh-Weiner 1988, 235).
    In the summer of 1945, when Lewin and he visited Ames at his Hanover laboratory, writes Heider, "I showed Ames one of these [cube] demonstrations, and I explained how he could build different setups that would all give the impression of three-dimensional cubes although they would actually be different wire models that would have no similarity to cubes except when each was seen from a specific angle" (Heider 1983, 141).
    To better understand anamorphoses, including Heider’s cube demonstration and the Ames room, it may help to realize that anamorphic phenomena are experienced daily, and that among the most common examples are constellations. 
    In the Big Dipper, for example, the distance of the farthest star (Alkaid) is 210 light-years, while the star adjacent to it (Mizar) is only 88 light-years away. Despite such phenomenal separation, we perceive these stars (as viewed from our "peephole" position on Earth) as lying next to one another on a perpendicular plane. Through calculated manipulation, any number of different stars, of varying size and brightness, could theoretically be placed at different distances from the Earth to create the same retinal image as does the Big Dipper. Indeed, as art historian E.H. Gombrich writes, stellar constellations "may be described as a gigantic Ames experiment which nature has set up for man" (Gombrich 1982, 207). More…,_Jr.
See also—
• “Adelbert Ames II” entry in R.R. Behrens, CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (Bobolink Books, 2009).
• R.R. Behrens, “Ames Demonstrations in Perception” entry in E. Bruce Goldstein, ed., Encyclopedia of Perception (Sage Publications, 2009).
• R.R. Behrens, “Adelbert Ames II” entry in Grove Online Dictionary of Art (Oxford University Press).
• R.R. Behrens, “The Artistic and Scientific Collaboration of Blanche Ames Ames and Adelbert Ames II.” Leonardo, vol 31 (1998), pp. 47-54.
• R.R. Behrens, “Eye Awry: The Ingenuity of Del Ames.” North American Review, vol 282 no 2 (1997), pp. 26-33.
CAMOUPEDIA: A Compendium of Research on Art, Architecture and Camouflage (2009) FALSE COLORS: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage (2002) COOK BOOK: Gertrude Stein, William Cook and Le Corbusier (2005) Above The author of this essay (in dark jacket, c1975) in a full-sized Ames Room, and below looking through the back window of an earlier, smaller model (c1972).
Below The Ames rotating trapezoid window rotates on an upright rod, but it looks as if it oscillates. It was the last of Ames’s inventions.
N.R. Hanson (Patterns of Discovery): “Seeing is an experience. A retinal reaction is only a physical state—a photochemical exitation…People, not their eyes, see. Cameras, and eyeballs, are blind…” Above An Ames distorted room as it appears from the side.
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Temple Grandin (The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s): “Students on the spectrum need to be exposed to new things to become interested in them. They need to see concrete examples of really cool things to keep them motived to learn. I became fascinated by optical illusions after seeing a single movie in science class that demonstrated optical illusions. My science teacher challenged me to recreate two famous optical illusions, called the Ames Distorted Room and the Ames Trapezoid Window. I spent six months making them out of cardboard and plywood and I finally figured them out. This motivated me to study experimental psychology in college.”
In 2010, HBO released a film docudrama on the life of Temple Grandin. In the title sequence, Grandin’s character (played by Claire Danes) is shown inside a full-sized Ames Distorted Room. Click here to view a public domain film clip of a modified Ames Room at the Amos Anderson Art Museum in Helsinski, Finland (courtesy Wikipedia Commons). Throughout history, artists and architects have used form distortion techniques comparable to those of Ames. In current art photography, among the most interesting examples are the works of Richard Koenig at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.
Other examples of the Ames demonstrations include a small number of 16mm educational films that were made in the 1950s and 60s (most likely it was one of these that Temple Grandin saw in science class): Demonstrations in Perception, 1951 (ISBN 0-699-07225-5). Seeing Isn’t Believing, 1952 (ISBN 0-699-26110-4). Visual Perception, 1954 (ISBN 0-699-31153-5). Experience as Give and Take, 1958 (ISBN 0-699-09439-9). Visual Perception, 1959 (ISBN 0-699-31154-3). Sense Perception: Part Two: The Limitations of the Senses, 1960 (ISBN 0-699-26191-0). More recently, the Ames Room has also been featured in a series of weight-control commercials, filmed by Errol Morris for Quaker Oats; and in other films posted on YouTube.

Below are four screen grabs from a ten-part WNET television series titled Behind the Scenes (1992). In one of programs (in which David Hockney was the guest artist), hosts Penn and Teller (shown here) used several Ames demonstrations, including the distorted room, size-distance illusions, and odd-sized overlapping cards.
Another performer who made extensive use of humorous Ames-like sight gags was television comedian Ernie Kovacs (1919-1962). Reproduced below are screen shots from Eugene, a Kovacs comedy show that aired in 1961. In this sequence, a workman sits down at a table to eat his lunch. When he removes grapes and other things from his lunch pail, they roll to one end of the table. In the second photo, he is holding up a string with a grape tied to it, to show that something’s out of plumb. Below that, when he tries to pour milk into a cup from a thermos, it contradicts what we would expect of gravity. All these effects were produced by the use of a dramatically tilted stage set, as shown in a Life magazine photograph on Kovacs’ biographical page on Wikipedia. An earlier broadcast of this (c1957) is available on YouTube.
S. Howard Bartley 
(A Bit of Human Transparency): “I dare say that psychology still has not fully caught on to what Ames had to offer.”