A mirror is an object that reflects light in such a way that, for incident light in some range of wavelengths, the reflected light preserves many or most of the detailed physical characteristics of the original light, called specular reflection. This is different from other light-reflecting objects that do not preserve much of the original wave signal other than color and diffuse reflected light, such as flat-white paint.
The most familiar type of mirror is the plane mirror, which has a flat surface. Curved mirrors are also used, to produce magnified or diminished images or focus light or simply distort the reflected image.
Mirrors are commonly used for personal grooming or admiring oneself (where they are also called looking-glasses), decoration, and architecture. Mirrors are also used in scientific apparatus such as telescopes and lasers, cameras, and industrial machinery. Most mirrors are designed for visible light; however, mirrors designed for other wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation are also used.
There are many types of glass mirrors, each representing a different manufacturing process and reflection type.
An aluminium glass mirror is made of a float glass manufactured using vacuum coating, i.e. aluminium powder is evaporated (or "sputtered") onto the exposed surface of the glass in a vacuum chamber and then coated with two or more layers of waterproof protective paint.
A low aluminium glass mirror is manufactured by coating silver and two layers of protective paint on the back surface of glass. A low aluminium glass mirror is very clear, light transmissive, smooth, and reflects accurate natural colors. This type of glass is widely used for framing presentations and exhibitions in which a precise color representation of the artwork is truly essential or when the background color of the frame is predominantly white.
A safety glass mirror is made by adhering a special protective film to the back surface of a silver glass mirror, which prevents injuries in case the mirror is broken. This kind of mirror is used for furniture, doors, glass walls, commercial shelves, or public areas.
A silkscreen printed glass mirror is produced using inorganic color ink that prints patterns through a special screen onto glass. Various colors, patterns, and glass shapes are available. Such a glass mirror is durable and more moisture resistant than ordinary printed glass and can serve for over 20 years. This type of glass is widely used for decorative purposes (e.g., on mirrors, table tops, doors, windows, kitchen chop boards, etc.).
A silver glass mirror is an ordinary mirror, coated on its back surface with silver, which produces images by reflection. This kind of glass mirror is produced by coating a silver, copper film and two or more layers of waterproof paint on the back surface of float glass, which perfectly resists acid and moisture. A silver glass mirror provides clear and actual images, is quite durable, and is widely used for furniture, bathroom and other decorative purposes.
Decorative glass mirrors are usually handcrafted. A variety of shades, shapes and glass thickness are often available.
A beam of light reflects off a mirror at an angle of reflection equal to its angle of incidence (if the size of a mirror is much larger than the wavelength of light). That is, if the beam of light is shining on a mirror's surface, at a ° angle vertically, then it reflects from the point of incidence at a ° angle from vertically in the opposite direction. This law mathematically follows from the interference of a plane wave on a flat boundary (of much larger size than the wavelength).
Objects viewed in a (plane) mirror will appear laterally inverted (e.g., if one raises one's right hand, the image's left hand will appear to go up in the mirror), but not vertically inverted (in the image a person's head still appears above his body). However, a mirror does not usually "swap" left and right any more than it swaps top and bottom. A mirror typically reverses the forward/backward axis. To be precise, it reverses the object in the direction perpendicular to the mirror surface (the normal). Because left and right are defined relative to front-back and top-bottom, the "flipping" of front and back results in the perception of a left-right reversal in the image. (If you stand side-on to a mirror, the mirror really does reverse your left and right, because that's the direction perpendicular to the mirror.)
Looking at an image of oneself with the front-back axis flipped results in the perception of an image with its left-right axis flipped. When reflected in the mirror, your right hand remains directly opposite your real right hand, but it is perceived as the left hand of your image. When a person looks into a mirror, the image is actually front-back reversed, which is an effect similar to the hollow-mask illusion. Notice that a mirror image is fundamentally different from the object and cannot be reproduced by simply rotating the object.
For things that may be considered as two-dimensional objects (like text), front-back reversal cannot usually explain the observed reversal. In the same way that text on a piece of paper appears reversed if held up to a light and viewed from behind, text held facing a mirror will appear reversed, because the observer is behind the text. Another way to understand the reversals observed in images of objects that are effectively two-dimensional is that the inversion of left and right in a mirror is due to the way human beings turn their bodies. To turn from viewing the side of the object facing the mirror to view the reflection in the mirror requires the observer to look in the opposite direction. To look in another direction, human beings turn their heads about a vertical axis. This causes a left-right reversal in the image but not an up-down reversal. If a person instead turns by bending over and looking at the mirror image between his/her legs, up-down will appear reversed but not left-right. This sort of reversal is simply a change relative to the observer and not a change intrinsic to the image itself, as with a three-dimensional object.
The first mirrors used by humans were most likely pools of dark, still water, or water collected in a primitive vessel of some sort. The requirements for making a good mirror are a surface with a very high degree of flatness (preferably but not necessarily with high reflectivity), and a surface roughness smaller than the wavelength of the light. The earliest manufactured mirrors were pieces of polished stone such as obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass. Examples of obsidian mirrors found in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) have been dated to around 6000 BC. Mirrors of polished copper were crafted in Mesopotamia from 4000 BC, and in ancient Egypt from around 3000 BC. Polished stone mirrors from Central and South America date from around 2000 BC onwards. In China, bronze mirrors were manufactured from around 2000 BC, some of the earliest bronze and copper examples being produced by the Qijia culture. Mirrors made of other metal mixtures (alloys) such as copper and tin speculum metal may have also been produced in China and India. Mirrors of speculum metal or any precious metal were hard to produce and were only owned by the wealthy. These stone and metal mirrors could be made in very large sizes, but were difficult to polish and get perfectly flat; a process that became more difficult with increased size; so they often produced warped or blurred images. Stone mirrors often had poor reflectivity compared to metals, yet metals scratch or tarnish easily, so they frequently needed polishing. Depending upon the color, both often yielded reflections with poor color rendering. The poor image quality of ancient mirrors explains 1 Corinthians 13's reference to seeing "as in a mirror, darkly."
Glass was a desirable material for mirrors. Because the surface of glass is naturally smooth, it produces reflections with very little blur. In addition, glass is very hard and scratch resistant. However, glass by itself has little reflectivity, so people began coating it with metals to increase the reflectivity. Metal-coated glass mirrors are said by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder to have been invented in Sidon (modern-day Lebanon) in the first century AD, although no archeological evidence of them date from before the third century. According to Pliny, the people of Sidon developed a technique for creating crude mirrors by coating blown glass with molten lead. Glass mirrors backed with gold leaf are mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History, written in about 77 AD. Because there were few ways to make a smooth piece of glass with a uniform thickness, these ancient glass-mirrors were made by blowing a glass bubble, and then cutting off a small, circular section, producing mirrors that were either concave or convex. These circular mirrors were typically small, from only a fraction of an inch to as much as eight inches in diameter. These small mirrors produced distorted images, yet were prized objects of high value. These ancient glass mirrors were very thin, thus very fragile, because the glass needed to be extremely thin to prevent cracking when coated with a hot, molten metal. Due to the poor quality, high cost, and small size of these ancient glass mirrors, solid metal-mirrors primarily of steel were usually preferred until the late nineteenth century.
Parabolic mirrors were described and studied in classical antiquity by the mathematician Diocles in his work On Burning Mirrors. Ptolemy conducted a number of experiments with curved polished iron mirrors, and discussed plane, convex spherical, and concave spherical mirrors in his Optics. Parabolic mirrors were also described by the physicist Ibn Sahl in the 10th century, and Ibn al-Haytham discussed concave and convex mirrors in both cylindrical and spherical geometries, carried out a number of experiments with mirrors, and solved the problem of finding the point on a convex mirror at which a ray coming from one point is reflected to another point. By the 11th century, clear glass mirrors were being produced in Moorish Spain.
In China, people began making mirrors by coating metallic objects with silver-mercury amalgams as early as 500 AD. This was accomplished by coating the mirror with the amalgam, and then heating it until the mercury boiled away, leaving only the silver behind.
The problems of making metal-coated, glass mirrors was due to the difficulties in making glass that was very clear, as most ancient glass was tinted green with iron. This was overcome when people began mixing soda, limestone, potash, manganese, and fern ashes with the glass. There was also no way for the ancients to make flat panes of glass with uniform thicknesses. The earliest methods for producing glass panes began in France, when people began blowing glass bubbles, and then spinning them rapidly to flatten them out into plates from which pieces could be cut. However, these pieces were still not uniform in thickness, so produced distorted images as well. A better method was to blow a cylinder of glass, cut off the ends, slice it down the center, and unroll it onto a flat hearth. This method produced the first mirror-quality glass panes, but it was very difficult and resulted in a lot of breakage. Even windows were primarily made of oiled paper or stained glass, until the mid-nineteenth century, due to the high cost of making clear, flat panes of glass.
The method of making flat panes of clear glass from blown cylinders began in Germany and evolved through the Middle Ages, until being perfected by the Venetians in the sixteenth century. The Venetians began using lead glass for its crystal-clarity and its easier workability. Some time during the early Renaissance, European manufacturers perfected a superior method of coating glass with a tin-mercury amalgam, producing an amorphous coating with better reflectivity than crystalline metals and causing little thermal shock to the glass. The exact date and location of the discovery is unknown, but in the sixteenth century, Venice, a city famed for its glass-making expertise, became a center of mirror production using this new technique. Glass mirrors from this period were extremely expensive luxuries. For example, in the late seventeenth century, the Countess de Fiesque was reported to have traded an entire wheat farm for a mirror, considering it a bargain. These Venetian mirrors were limited in size to a maximum area of around 40 inches (100 cm) square, until modern glass panes began to be produced during the Industrial Revolution. The Saint-Gobain factory, founded by royal initiative in France, was an important manufacturer, and Bohemian and German glass, often rather cheaper, was also important.
The invention of the silvered-glass mirror is credited to German chemist Justus von Liebig in 1835. His process involved the deposition of a thin layer of metallic silver onto glass through the chemical reduction of silver nitrate. This silvering process was adapted for mass manufacturing and led to the greater availability of affordable mirrors. In the modern age, mirrors are often produced by the wet deposition of silver, or sometimes nickel or chromium (the latter used most often in automotive mirrors) via electroplating directly onto the glass substrate.
Vacuum deposition began with the study of the sputtering phenomenon during the 1920s and 1930s, which was a common problem in lighting in which metal ejected from the electrodes coated the glass, blocking output. However, turning sputtering into a reliable method of coating a mirror did not occur until the invention of semiconductors in the 1970s. Evaporation coating was pioneered by John Strong in 1912. Aluminum was a desirable material for mirrors, but was too dangerous to apply with electroplating. Strong used evaporation coating to make the first aluminum telescope mirrors in the 1930s. The first dielectric mirror was created in 1937 by Auwarter using evaporated rhodium, while the first metallic mirror to be enhanced with a dielectric coating of silicon dioxide was created by Hass the same year. In 1939 at the Schott Glass company, Walter Geffcken invented the first dielectric mirrors to use multilayer coatings (stacks).
Mirrors are manufactured by applying a reflective coating to a suitable substrate. The most common substrate is glass, due to its transparency, ease of fabrication, rigidity, hardness, and ability to take a smooth finish. The reflective coating is typically applied to the back surface of the glass, so that the reflecting side of the coating is protected from corrosion and accidental damage by the glass on one side and the coating itself and optional paint for further protection on the other.
In classical antiquity, mirrors were made of solid metal (bronze, later silver) and were too expensive for widespread use by common people; they were also prone to corrosion. Due to the low reflectivity of polished metal, these mirrors also gave a darker image than modern ones, making them unsuitable for indoor use with the artificial lighting of the time (candles or lanterns).
The method of making mirrors out of plate glass was invented by 13th-century Venetian glassmakers on the island of Murano, who covered the back of the glass with an amorphous coat of tin using a fire-gilding technique, obtaining near-perfect and undistorted reflection. For over one hundred years, Venetian mirrors installed in richly decorated frames served as luxury decorations for palaces throughout Europe, but the secret of the mercury process eventually arrived in London and Paris during the 17th century, due to industrial espionage. French workshops succeeded in large-scale industrialization of the process, eventually making mirrors affordable to the masses, although mercury's toxicity (a primary ingredient in gilding, which was boiled away forming noxious vapors) remained a problem.
The tin(II) chloride is applied because silver will not bond with the glass. The activator causes the tin/silver to harden. Copper is added for long-term durability. The paint protects the coating on the back of the mirror from scratches and other accidental damage.
In some applications, generally those that are cost-sensitive or that require great durability, mirrors are made from a single, bulk material such as polished metal. However, metals consist of small crystals (grains) separated by grain boundaries. Thus, crystalline metals do not reflect with perfect uniformity. Other methods like wet-deposition or electroplating produce a non-crystalline coating of amorphous metal (metallic glass). Lacking any grain boundaries, the amorphous coatings have higher reflectivity than crystalline metals of the same type. Electroplating must be performed by first coating the glass with carbon, to make the surface electrically conductive, thus the adhesion is often not as good as with wet-deposition. Both lack the ability to produce perfectly uniform thicknesses with high precision. When high precision or reflectivity is not a requirement, the coating may be placed on the back of the mirror, so that the light passes through the glass and the coating is the second surface it encounters. Therefore, these are called second surface mirrors, which have the added benefit of high durability, because the glass substrate can protect the coating from damage.
For technical applications such as laser mirrors, the reflective coating is typically applied by vacuum deposition. Vacuum deposition provides an effective means of producing a very uniform coating, and controlling the thickness with high precision. In applications where great precision and low losses are required, the coated side of the mirror may be the first material encountered by the light, referred to as a first-surface mirror. This eliminates refraction and double reflections, also called "ghost reflections" (a weak reflection from the surface of the glass, and a stronger one from the reflecting metal), and reduces absorption of light by the mirror. Technical mirrors may use a silver, aluminium, or gold coating (the latter typically for infrared mirrors), and achieve reflectivities of 90–95% when new. A hard, protective, transparent overcoat may be applied to prevent oxidation of the reflective layer and scratching of the soft metal. Applications requiring higher reflectivity or greater durability, where wide bandwidth is not essential, use dielectric coatings, which can achieve reflectivities as high as 99.997% over a limited range of wavelengths. Vacuum deposition can be achieved in a number of ways, including sputtering, evaporation deposition, arc deposition, reactive-gas deposition, and ion plating, among many others.
Mirrors can be manufactured to a wide range of engineering tolerances, including reflectivity, surface quality, surface roughness, or transmissivity, depending on the desired application. These tolerances can range from low, such as found in a normal household-mirror, to extremely high, like those used in lasers or telescopes. Increasing the tolerances allows better and more precise imaging or beam transmission over longer distances. In imaging systems this can help reduce anomalies (artifacts), distortion or blur, but at a much higher cost. Where viewing distances are relatively close or high precision is not a concern, lower tolerances can be used to make effective mirrors at affordable costs.
The reflectivity of a mirror is determined by the percentage of reflected light per the percentage of the incident light. The reflectivity may vary with wavelength. All or a portion of the light not reflected is absorbed by the mirror, while in some cases a portion may also transmit through. Although some small portion of the light will be absorbed by the coating, the reflectivity is usually higher for first-surface mirrors, eliminating both reflection and absorption losses from the substrate. The reflectivity is often determined by the type and thickness of the coating. When the thickness of the coating is sufficient to prevent transmission, all of the losses occur due to absorption. Aluminum will reflect 85 to 90% of the light in the visible to near-ultraviolet range, but is a poor reflector of infrared wavelengths longer than 800 nm. Gold is up to 96% reflective to near and far-infrared light between 800 and 12000 nm, but poorly reflects visible light with wavelengths shorter than 600 nm (yellow). Silver has the highest reflectivity in the visual to near-infrared of any metal, and can reflect up to 98 or 99% of light to wavelengths as long as 2000 nm, but loses nearly all reflectivity at wavelengths shorter than 350 nm. Dielectric mirrors can reflect greater than 99.99% of light, but only for a narrow range of wavelengths. However, dielectric coatings can also enhance the reflectivity of metallic coatings and protect them from scratching or tarnishing. In mirrors with low tolerances, the coating thickness may be reduced to save cost, and simply covered with paint to absorb transmission.
Surface quality measures the deviations from a perfect, ideal surface. Increasing the surface quality reduces distortion, artifacts, and aberration in images, and helps increase coherence, collimation, and reduce unwanted divergence in beams. For plane mirrors, this is often described in terms of flatness, while other surface shapes are compared to an ideal shape. The surface quality is typically measured with items like interferometers or optical flats, and are usually measured in wavelengths of light (λ). A normal household-mirror made with float glass may have flatness tolerances as low as 9--14λ per inch, equating to a deviation of 5600 through 8800 nanometers from perfect flatness. Precision ground and polished mirrors intended for lasers or telescopes may have tolerances as high as λ/50 (1/50 of the wavelength of the light, or around 12 nm).
Surface roughness determines how much of the reflection is specular and how much diffuses, controlling how sharp or blurry the image will be. For perfectly specular reflection, the surface roughness must be kept smaller than the wavelength of the light. Microwaves, which sometimes have a wavelength greater than an inch (2.5 cm) can reflect specularly off a metal screen-door, while visible light, having wavelengths of only a few hundred nanometers (a few millionths of an inch), must meet a very smooth surface to produce specular reflection.
Transmissivity is determined by the percentage of light transmitted per the incident light. Transmissivity is usually the same from both first and second surfaces. The combined transmitted and reflected light, subtracted from the incident light, measures the amount absorbed by both the coating and substrate. For transmissive mirrors, such as one-way mirrors, beam splitters, or laser output couplers, the transmissivity of the mirror is an important consideration. The transmissivity of metallic coatings are often determined by their thickness. For precision beam-splitters or output couplers, the thickness of the coating must be kept at very high tolerances to transmit the proper amount of light. For dielectric mirrors, the thickness of the coat must always be kept to high tolerances, but it is often more the number of individual coats that determine the transmissivity. For the substrate, the material used must also have good transmissivity to the chosen wavelengths. Glass is a suitable substrate for most visible-light applications, but other substrates such as zinc selenide or synthetic sapphire may be used for infrared or ultraviolet wavelengths.
Mirrors are commonly used as aids to personal grooming. They may range from small sizes, good to carry with oneself, to full body sized; they may be handheld, mobile, fixed or adjustable. A classic example of the latter is the cheval glass, which may be tilted.
With the sun as light source, a mirror can be used to signal by variations in the orientation of the mirror. The signal can be used over long distances, possibly up to 60 km on a clear day. This technique was used by Native American tribes and numerous militaries to transmit information between distant outposts.
Microscopic mirrors are a core element of many of the largest high-definition televisions and video projectors. A common technology of this type is Texas Instruments' DLP. A DLP chip is a postage stamp-sized microchip whose surface is an array of millions of microscopic mirrors. The picture is created as the individual mirrors move to either reflect light toward the projection surface (pixel on), or toward a light absorbing surface (pixel off).
Other projection technologies involving mirrors include LCoS. Like a DLP chip, LCoS is a microchip of similar size, but rather than millions of individual mirrors, there is a single mirror that is actively shielded by a liquid crystal matrix with up to millions of pixels. The picture, formed as light, is either reflected toward the projection surface (pixel on), or absorbed by the activated LCD pixels (pixel off). LCoS-based televisions and projectors often use 3 chips, one for each primary color.
Large mirrors are used in rear projection televisions. Light (for example from a DLP as mentioned above) is "folded" by one or more mirrors so that the television set is compact.
Telescopes and other precision instruments use front silvered or first surface mirrors, where the reflecting surface is placed on the front (or first) surface of the glass (this eliminates reflection from glass surface ordinary back mirrors have). Some of them use silver, but most are aluminium, which is more reflective at short wavelengths than silver. All of these coatings are easily damaged and require special handling. They reflect 90% to 95% of the incident light when new. The coatings are typically applied by vacuum deposition. A protective overcoat is usually applied before the mirror is removed from the vacuum, because the coating otherwise begins to corrode as soon as it is exposed to oxygen and humidity in the air. Front silvered mirrors have to be resurfaced occasionally to keep their quality. There are optical mirrors such as mangin mirrors that are second surface mirrors (reflective coating on the rear surface) as part of their optical designs, usually to correct optical aberrations.
The reflectivity of the mirror coating can be measured using a reflectometer and for a particular metal it will be different for different wavelengths of light. This is exploited in some optical work to make cold mirrors and hot mirrors. A cold mirror is made by using a transparent substrate and choosing a coating material that is more reflective to visible light and more transmissive to infrared light.
A hot mirror is the opposite, the coating preferentially reflects infrared. Mirror surfaces are sometimes given thin film overcoatings both to retard degradation of the surface and to increase their reflectivity in parts of the spectrum where they will be used. For instance, aluminum mirrors are commonly coated with silicon dioxide or magnesium fluoride. The reflectivity as a function of wavelength depends on both the thickness of the coating and on how it is applied.
For scientific optical work, dielectric mirrors are often used. These are glass (or sometimes other material) substrates on which one or more layers of dielectric material are deposited, to form an optical coating. By careful choice of the type and thickness of the dielectric layers, the range of wavelengths and amount of light reflected from the mirror can be specified. The best mirrors of this type can reflect >99.999% of the light (in a narrow range of wavelengths) which is incident on the mirror. Such mirrors are often used in lasers.
Although most mirrors are designed to reflect visible light, surfaces reflecting other forms of electromagnetic radiation are also called "mirrors". The mirrors for other ranges of electromagnetic waves are used in optics and astronomy. Mirrors for radio waves (sometimes known as reflectors) are important elements of radio telescopes.
Two or more mirrors aligned exactly parallel and facing each other can give an infinite regress of reflections, called an infinity mirror effect. Some devices use this to generate multiple reflections:
It has been said that Archimedes used a large array of mirrors to burn Roman ships during an attack on Syracuse. This has never been proven or disproved; however, it has been put to the test. Recently, on a popular Discovery Channel show, MythBusters, a team from MIT tried to recreate the famous "Archimedes Death Ray". They were unsuccessful at starting a fire on the ship. Previous attempts to light the boat on fire using only the bronze mirrors available in Archimedes' time were unsuccessful, and the time taken to ignite the craft would have made its use impractical, resulting in the MythBusters team deeming the myth "busted". It was however found that the mirrors made it very difficult for the passengers of the targeted boat to see, likely helping to cause their defeat, which may have been the origin of the myth. (See solar power tower for a practical use of this technique.)
Due to its location in a steep-sided valley, the Italian town of Viganella gets no direct sunlight for seven weeks each winter. In 2006 a €100,000 computer-controlled mirror, 8×5 m, was installed to reflect sunlight into the town's piazza. In early 2007 the similarly situated village of Bondo, Switzerland, was considering applying this solution as well. In 2013, mirrors were installed to reflect sunlight into the town square in the Norwegian town of Rjukan. Mirrors can be used to produce enhanced lighting effects in greenhouses or conservatories.
Mirrors are a popular design theme in architecture, particularly with late modern and post-modernist high-rise buildings in major cities. Early examples include the Campbell Center in Dallas, which opened in 1972, and the John Hancock Tower in Boston.
More recently, two skyscrapers designed by architect Rafael Viñoly, the Vdara in Las Vegas and 20 Fenchurch Street in London, have experienced unusual problems due to their concave curved glass exteriors acting as respectively cylindrical and spherical reflectors for sunlight. In 2010, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported that sunlight reflected off the Vdara's south-facing tower could singe swimmers in the hotel pool, as well as melting plastic cups and shopping bags; employees of the hotel referred to the phenomenon as the "Vdara death ray", aka the "fryscraper." In 2013, sunlight reflecting off 20 Fenchurch Street melted parts of a Jaguar car parked nearby and scorching or igniting the carpet of a nearby barber shop. This building had been nicknamed the "walkie-talkie" because its shape was supposedly similar to a certain model of two-way radio; but after its tendency to overheat surrounding objects became known, the nickname changed to the "walkie-scorchie."
Painters depicting someone gazing into a mirror often also show the person's reflection. This is a kind of abstraction—in most cases the angle of view is such that the person's reflection should not be visible. Similarly, in movies and still photography an actor or actress is often shown ostensibly looking at him- or herself in the mirror, and yet the reflection faces the camera. In reality, the actor or actress sees only the camera and its operator in this case, not their own reflection.
The mirror is the central device in some of the greatest of European paintings:
Mirrors have been used by artists to create works and hone their craft:
Mirrors are sometimes necessary to fully appreciate art work:
Some other contemporary artists use mirrors as the material of art:
Mirrors are frequently used in interior decoration and as ornaments:
Mirrors play a powerful role in cultural literature.
Other types of reflecting device are also called "mirrors".