Adelbert Ames

Ames, Adelbert, Jr. (1880-1955) was a visual physiologist who studied optics and perception. He identified a retinal-image dysfunction. He also created more than 24 visual illusions known as “the Ames demonstrations in perceptions.”

Ames developed a series of laboratory illusions designed to distort perspective. For instance, in one illusion, people appear to grow taller or shorter as they walk from one corner of the room to another. Ames believed that people rely on experience and expectation to make sense of what they are seeing. This is called the transac-tional approach.


Ames was the son of General Adelbert Ames, a Civil War (1861-1865) hero who served as a U.S. senator and governor of Mississippi, and Blanche Butler. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1906, Ames accepted a position at a Boston law firm. But in 1910 he left the firm to make his living as a professional artist. Soon after, Ames began working with his sister, Blanche, also an artist, to develop a color-notation system that included 3,300 colors with different hues, values, and intensities. Ames also became increasingly interested in perception, and from 1913 to 1917, he studied optical physiology at Clark University.

During World War I (1914-1918), Ames served as a captain in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. When the fighting ended, he moved to New Hampshire to continue optical research at Dartmouth College in Hanover. Between 1921 and 1923, he published four major papers. The first paper provided an overview of color-notation systems, the second and third explained the eye's refractive lens system, and the fourth examined the relationship between art and optical physiology.

In 1928, Ames discovered aniseikonia, a visual dysfunction where the brain is unable to blend the rentinal images from both eyes. The lenses Ames invented to correct this condition spurred the development of the Dartmouth Eye Institute, where he served as director in the 1930's.