When Laszlo Moholy-Nagy fled the Nazis in the 1930s, he lugged this bizarre contraption through customs in country after country. The Light-Space Modulator looks like a mad-science experiment and sounds like a time machine, but it helped pioneer digital design.

According to an article in the New York Times, Moholy-Nagy was one of the least well-regarded members of Germany's Bauhaus school during his life, but The New Vision, his posthumous book on the future of art, design education, and the new media of photography and film, helped change that. And now he's being hailed as an important forefather to today's digital artists.

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So what does the Light-Space Modulator do? It allows you to study the motion of light. Moholy-Nagy explains:

This piece of lighting equipment is a device used for demonstrating both plays of light and manifestations of movement. The model consists of a cube-like body or box, 120 x 120 cm in size, with a circular opening (stage opening) at its front side. On the back of the panel, mounted around the opening are a number of yellow, green, blue, rot, and white-toned electric bulbs (approximately 70 illuminating bulbs of 15 watts each, and 5 headlamps of 100 watts). Located inside the body, parallel to its front side, is a second panel; this panel too, bears a circular opening about which are mounted electric lightbulbs of different colors. In accordance with a predetermined plan, individual bulbs glow at different points. They illuminate a continually moving mechanism built of partly translucent, partly transparent, and partly fretted materials, in order to cause the best possible play of shadow formations on the back wall of the closed box. (When the demonstration occurs in a darkened space, the back wall of the box can be removed and the color and shadow projection shown on a screen of any chosen size behind the box.) The mechanism is supported by a circular platform on which a three-part mechanism is built. The dividing walls are made of transparent cellophane, and a metal wall made of vertical rods. Each of the three sectors of the framework accommodate a different, playful movement study, which individually goes into effect when it appears on the main disc revolving before the stage opening.

Image by HC Gilje on Flickr. [New York Times]