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Thank You, Captain Kangaroo!

The year is about 1961: A small girl is sitting too close to the black-and-white TV, watching Captain Kangaroo. Her mother is in the kitchen. Captain Kangaroo comes on and introduces something called "Benham's Disk," a disk, half black and half white, with black markings on the white half. He says when you spin it, you see colour, but he warns his viewers that they can only see it if they are watching colour TV.

The little girl sighs, wriggles on the floor, but keeps watching. Most kids in her town don't have colour TV (just a few rich kids), but more and more TV shows now talk about things you need a colour TV for. She watches as Captain Kangaroo spins the disk, expecting to see only swirling gray, when suddenly she notices -- she's seeing colour! Actual colour is there, on her black and white TV.

"Mom! You got to see this!" she calls, but her mother is busy, and not fascinated with whatever might be on Captain Kangaroo. On the screen, the cameraman has done a closeup on the disk, and the screen is filled with the effect. Colours, in concentric circles, whirling outwards. She knows she is watching something magic. She also knows that her mom is never gonna believe it.

Her mother tried to convince her it was impossible, of course, to see colour on a black and white TV. The little girl agreed, but insisted that it had happened just the same. Her mother didn't believe her then, and I don't know if she ever did.

The little girl was me. I knew what I saw then, and now, years later, I understand a bit more about it. The colours definitely existed, but they were not "out there" on the Captain Kangaroo set, not "transmitted" by the cathode rays of the black and white TV, they were created -- as all colours are, in the eye and mind of the viewer.

Incidentally, the audacity of someone, anyone, telling me I did not experience something still fresh in my mind also had its effect on me. I knew what I saw, and it gave me a sympathy for people whose experience is too quickly dismissed by people who have no way of judging, yet do it all the same, quickly, simply, and with no room for benefit of the doubt. Later, my favorite line in Hamlet became, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

A few years later, I was looking through our World Book (1963 edition) and, in the article on colour, found a picture of Benham's Disk. "See, Mom, that's what Captain Kangaroo showed us." I think she eventually felt that the thing just might have been possible.

The amazing thing is that the effect could be perceived through the transmission of black and white signals only.

A few years after that, in the World Book Year Book for what year I am uncertain, perhaps 1969, there was an article about a young man who won a high school science prize for an experiment in colour perception also involving seeing colour through black and white media only. This is what he did:

He set up a still life where you couldn't guess the colours by the shapes of the objects: they were glasses filled with liquid containing food colouring. There would be no cues to the imagination in the subject matter. He took three black and white slides of each setup: one through a red filter, one through a blue filter, and one through a green filter. Then he set up three slide projectors, putting the same colour filter on the projector as the slide was taken with. He projected the three images so they formed one image, and voila! The scene reappeared, in full colour, using only black and white media. The interesting thing is, if you looked at any area of the image through a tube, it became gray again.

But, I'd seen it first on Captain Kangaroo!

While I've never read a cogent explanation of how Benham's disk creates colour in the human mind, or how the science experiment worked, I believe they are the same phenomenon. I see the process in the mind as being analogous to the colour on a butterfly's wing, made up not of pigmented material, but many small combs that create colours through diffraction patterns. Not that Benham's disk or a black and white slide taken through a colour filter actually diffracts colours physically in the same way, but that the mind can pick up "differences," perhaps of necessity holistically over a large visual field, and use these differences as clues for reconstructing colour. In the experiment, when the visual field was narrowed down by looking through the tube, the mechanism broke down. Just how this perceptual phenomenon works is still, as far as I know, a mystery.

The experience of watching Benham's disk on black and white TV, and actually seeing colour, was certainly a catalyst in encouraging my interest in colour. I referred back to it in my mind many times in my dealings with colour and colour theory, particularly when writers would fall into the easy trap of speaking as though colour were out there, when really, it's in here, always and only, in here. It was a powerful lesson, not only in colour and perception, but in the nature of knowledge, reality, and experience.

Thank you, Captain Kangaroo!

© 1996, Carin Perron

I will try to range throughout the various disciplines associated with colour, but later, when I get back to Perception again, I hope to write an article about The Man Who Was Colour Blind in Just One Eye. He also had his experience ignored in his day, and to this day, the two most-accepted theories of colour vision, Young-Helmholz and Hering, do not gibe with what this unusual man saw, and told us about.

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