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Dr. W G Levison's Fluorescent Mineral Viewing Box of 1903

Last Updated: 9th Dec 2008

By Daniel Russell

Dr. W G Levison's Fluorescent Mineral Viewing Box of 1903

by Daniel E Russell

Dr. Wallace Goold Levison was one of the most prominent scientists and mineral collectors in New York City in the 1880-1920 era. Today, he is largely forgotten.

Born at 1435 Pacific Street, Brooklyn (an address at which he would live for his entire life) in 1846, Levison attended Cooper Union, New York City's prestigious free school for the sciences and arts, and graduated with a BS from Harvard in 1870. He was a member of the New York Mineralogical Club, the New York Acdemy of Sciences, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Academy of Photography. He devoted most of his early career to the development of arc lamps, patenting several designs that proved extremely profitable. Clearly, light was an abiding interest of Levison's... he became an extremely skilled and technically adept photographer, devoting considerable effort to attempting to capture on film such low-level light phenomena as outdoor displays of electric lights and fireworks. Another of his passions was the study of fluorescent, phosphorescent and radioluminescent minerals.

To facilitate his studies and to help demonstrate fluorescent responses to colleagues and the public, Levison created an apparatus that allowed people to view fluorescent minerals under daylight conditions.

Levison was not the first person to fabricate a “dark box” for viewing fluorescent minerals. Scientists had been studying luminescent minerals in the “camera obscura” (a large box with its interior painted black) since the 18th Century. At its most primitive, the mineralogist would expose the mineral specimen to sunlight – the dominant source of ultraviolet radiation – then place it in the box to see if it phosphoresced. Only the most extremely phosphorescent minerals could be identified using this method. By the mid 19th Century, scientists had developed colored glass filters which they placed over holes cut into a shuttered window, allowing only blue and violet visible light and long-wave ultraviolet light to enter the darkened room.

But there is something eminently collectorly about Levison's design. It is a field-worthy contrivance, that would not seem out of place in the hands of a mineral collector on the dumps of Franklin, New Jersey, and yet at the same time be of great utility in the mineralogical laboratory or classroom.

Basic Design

Levison patterned his fluorescent mineral viewing apparatus on the basic design of the hand-held fluoroscope, a recently-introduced device which enabled physicians to view real-time X-Ray images of patients.

Like the fluoroscope, Levison's fluorescent mineral viewer consisted of a light-tight box or chamber large enough to conveniently hold a mineral specimen (the chamber is marked with the letter “L” in the appended diagrams). One wall of the chamber has been removed and replaced with a rectangular, light-tight viewing funnel (marked with the letter “A”). The viewer looked into a viewport, “C”, which was bordered with black cloth in an effort to make it as light tight as possible when the viewer pressed his or her face against the port.


Wallace G Levison's Apparatus For Viewing Fluorescent Minerals
H is the exciter filter, composed of a quartz cell containing the copper ammonium sulfate solution
M is the light-tight sleeve which enables the viewer to insert specimens into the apparatus and to manipulate them
C and A (left hand side) are the shaded view-port through which the person looked.

Another wall of the chamber has been removed and a light-tight flexible sleeve (“M”) made of suede was attached that allowed the user to insert, remove, and manipulate mineral samples. The notion of using a sleeve instead of a doorway was no doubt suggested by Levison's experience in photography, since similar sleeves were used by photographers to change film when a darkroom wasn't available.


Wallace G Levison's Apparatus For Viewing Fluorescent Minerals
H is the exciter filter containing the copper ammonium sulfate solution, seen in cross section
M is the light-tight sleeve which enables the viewer to insert specimens into the apparatus and to manipulate them
N is a removable barrier filter or “viewing filter,” designed to absorb as much of the stray visible blue and violet light passed by the exciter filter. Most commonly the filter was made of transparent yellow glass.

Exciter Filter

At the heart of Levison's design was the “ray filter” - what we would today call the “exciter filter,” a filter designed to absorb and eliminate as much visible light as possible yet transmit or pass as much ultraviolet radiation as feasible. Most sources of ultraviolet radiation produce considerable amounts of visible light. The visible light can interfere with the viewer's observation of fluorescence, sometimes masking the fluorescence completely.

As early as 1853, physicist George Gabriel Stokes was aware that deep blue cobalt glass would transmit long-wave ultraviolet light, and effectively absorb all visible light except for the blue end of the spectrum. A purple-colored glass containing small amounts of cobalt and manganese proved even better at eliminating visible light, but still only transmitted appreciable amounts of long-wave ultraviolet light. However, none of these filters were of use for transmitting short-wave ultraviolet, which is effectively blocked by ordinary glass. In order to investigate minerals under short-wave ultraviolet, it was necessary to construct special filters out of quartz or fused quartz. Although it appears that some scientists had attempted to make short-wave ultraviolet filters from thin layers of organic chemicals deposited on quartz plates, they were delicate and impractical.

Levison adopted a simpler solution: creating a circular, water-tight cell out of a bottle made of fused-quartz. The bottle was filled with a liquid solution of copper ammonium sulfate to form a clear, deep-blue liquid that would transmit some short-wave ultraviolet. The liquid cell could be removed and traditional blue and purple glass filters inserted in its place.


Cross section of Wallace G Levison's Apparatus For Viewing Fluorescent Minerals

Light Sources

Levison also noted that iron spark lamps, electric arc lamps, and mercury lamps could be used in place of sunlight. In a later version of his viewing box, his design incorporated a built-in iron spark, consisting of two iron electrodes separated by a short distance. When a high voltage (about 4,000 volts) is passed through the electrodes, the spark thus created contained radiation especially rich in short-wave ultraviolet.

Levison noted some of the fluorescent responses he observed with his viewer:

Red.— Ruby and ruby corundum. Fluorescent sphalerite (e. g. from Cerro de Pasco, Peru.) Calcite, especially associated with Willemite, phosphorescent sphalerite .and some other minerals.

Orange — Aragonite, especially associated with sulfur from Sicily and sulfides of metals in general. Calcite, especially associated with Willemite from Franklin, N. J., phosphorescent sphalerite and some other minerals. Tribophosphorescent limestone (e. g. from Wahsatch Mts. Utah). Wollastonite of some varieties.

Pink — Hexagonite (e. g,. from Edwards, N. Y., especially the white variety.) Calcite from Cerro de Pasco, Peru. Sombrerite from the Sombrero Islands. Apatite, some varieties (e. g. from Haddam Neck, Conn.)

Yellow — Pectolite and a large number of other minerals.

Green — Autunite. Willemite. Apatite (some varieties.)

Blue — Fluorite, in some varieties. Leucophanite in some varieties. Petalite in some varieties, and some other minerals.


Wallace G Levison in his Brooklyn study. Smoking a churchwarden pipe and wearing a dressing gown, Levison is the very model of the Edwardian gentleman-scientist. Did the cabinets at right contain Levison's mineral collection?


Levison, Wallace Goold
Apparatus for Exhibiting the Fluorescence of Fluorescent Substances
United States Patent application 883,653 (Submitted 1 May 1903, Resubmitted 29 Nov 1905, Patented 31 March 1908).

Levison, Wallace Goold
Apparatus for Exhibiting the Fluorescence of Fluorescent Substances
United States Patent application 947,246 (Submitted 3 Nov 1908, Patented 25 Jan 1910)

Levison, Wallace Goold
Notes on Fluorescent Gems
America Geologist, Vol 33, No. 1 (Jan 1904) pp 57 -58

Levison, Wallace Goold “A Method and Apparatus for Detecting and Exhibiting the Fluorescence of Fluorescent Substances” Proceeding of the 13th Annual Meeting of the New York State Science Teachers Association !1908) Albany, 1909 pp 52-54

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