The magic lantern or Laterna Magica is an early type of image projector employing pictures on sheets of glass. It was developed in the 17th century and commonly used for educational and entertainment purposes.
The magic lantern used a concave mirror in back of a light source to direct as much of the light as possible through a small rectangular sheet of glass—a "lantern slide"—on which was the painted or photographic image to be projected, and onward into a lens at the front of the apparatus. The lens was adjusted to optimally focus the plane of the slide at the distance of the projection screen, which could be simply a white wall, and it therefore formed an enlarged image of the slide on the screen.
Apart from sunlight, the only light sources available at the time of invention in the 16th century were candles and oil lamps, which were very inefficient and produced very dim projected images. The invention of the Argand lamp in the 1790s helped to make the images brighter. The invention of limelight in the 1820s made them very much brighter. The invention of the intensely bright electric arc lamp in the 1860s eliminated the need for combustible gases or hazardous chemicals, and eventually the incandescent electric lamp further improved safety and convenience, although not brightness.
The magic lantern was not only a direct ancestor of the motion picture projector, but it could itself be used to project moving images, which was achieved by the use of various types of mechanical slides. Typically, two glass slides, one with the stationary part of the picture and the other with the part that was to move, would be placed one on top of the other and projected together, then the moving slide would be hand-operated, either directly or by means of a lever or other mechanism. Chromotrope slides, which produced eye-dazzling displays of continuously cycling abstract geometrical patterns and colors, were operated by means of a small crank and pulley wheel that rotated a glass disc.
There has been some debate about who the original inventor of the magic lantern is, but the most widely accepted theory is that Christiaan Huygens developed the original device in the late 1650s. In the fifteenth century, however, Giovanni Fontana, a Venetian engineer, had already created a lantern that projected an image of a demon. Other sources credit the German priest Athanasius Kircher, who describes a device similar to a magic lantern in his book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae. There are possible mentions of this device associated with Kircher as early as 1646. Even in its earliest use, it was demonstrated with monstrous images such as the Devil. Huygens's device was even referred to as the "lantern of fright" because it was able to project spooky images that looked like apparitions. In its early development, it was mostly used by magicians and conjurers to project images, making them appear or disappear, transform from one scene into a different scene, animate normally inanimate objects, or even create the belief of bringing the dead back to life.
In the 1660s, a man named Thomas Walgensten used his so-called "lantern of fear" to summon ghosts. Such uses of this early machine were not uncommon. In fact, a common setup of the machine was to keep parts of the projector in a separate, adjoining room with only the aperture visible, to make it seem more magical and scare people. By the 18th century, use by charlatans was common for religious reasons. For example, Count Cagliostro used it to "raise dead spirits" in Egyptian masonry. Johann Georg Schröpfer of Leipzig used the magic lantern to conjure up images of spirits on smoke. Schröpfer later went insane, thinking he was pursued by real devils, and shot himself after promising an audience he would later resurrect himself.
The later part of the 18th century was the age of Romanticism and the Gothic novel. There was an obsession with the bizarre and the supernatural. Johann Georg Schröpfer began using the magic lantern in séances, before Paul Philidor refined the techniques. In these shows, the illusionists used the magic lantern to trick people into thinking that they had summoned up spirits of revolutionary figures with the lantern mounted on a trolley. They also summoned ghosts by requests. However, Philidor's show was eventually closed by the authorities due to their paranoia. The audiences of these magic lantern shows reacted to the projections with bewilderment. They thought the projections were real dreams, visions, apparitions and ghosts, and the devil. This was just fueled by the fact that this is exactly what the early conjurers and magicians used them for: scaring people using these ghostly images. The next famous conjurer to utilize the magic lantern was Etienne-Gaspard Robert.
He was a Belgian inventor with an interest in magic. He held his first "fantasmagorie" at Pavillon de l'Echiquier in Paris. He began experimenting in the 1780s with techniques used to make phantasmagorias, which is basically the use of the magic lantern to conjure up supernatural images such as the devil, phantoms, or ghosts. If the images were projected onto a gauze screen, they would even seem to be floating in mid-air, making the stunt even more believable. At Pavillon de l'Echiquier, Robertson set up a public phantasmagoria and told the audience he would conjure up their dead relatives. He conjured up an image of a phantom with a dagger, and then pictures of the dead relatives. After this show, he continued to make other, bigger, more outrageous spectacles. He put the magic lantern onto wheels and patented this under the name of 'fantascope'. He eventually moved his work to a theater, where he built up a show to a grand finale in which large shapes moved around the otherwise dark theater. Robertson also used mechanical slides to make his images move. There is a small collection of transparencies at Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris which shows a two-piece slide he used with one glass showing the face of a phantom and the other which had the image of the eyes, which when used meant the eyes could roll back and forth. Also, Robertson used multiple lanterns to project both a moving figure as well as a background for that figure. For example, a stationary projector in the front would have projected an image of a church courtyard while a moving projector from behind would project the image of the phantom The Bleeding Nun, an image which came from the novel The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis. His shows were extremely successful. The popularity increased and eventually this phenomenon moved to England. Many observers have been quoted saying these "ghosts" were very realistic, which is partly due to people's eyes not being trained to the phenomenon of photography and cinematography like ours today are.
More recent uses
Eventually, the magic lantern came to America. It continued to be used by magicians but also to project moving images for entertainment. There were even some examples of pornographic striptease slides starting in the 1920s and proceeding through the first half of the 20th century. Today, the magic lantern is primarily used only by collectors. Collector Pierre Albanese and musician Thomas Bloch premiered a live Magic Lantern show in 2008, which tours since this date.
- Pfragner, Julius. "An Optician Looks for Work". The Motion Picture: From Magic Lantern to Sound. Great Britain: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen Ltd. 9-21. Print.
- Waddington, Damer. "Introduction". Panoramas, Magic Lanterns and Cinemas. Channel Islands, NJ: Tocan Books. xiii-xv. Print.
- Barber, Theodore X. "Phantasmagorical Wonders: The Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America." Film History 3,2 (1989): 73-86. Print.
- Pfragner, Julius. "Index". The Motion Picture: From Magic Lantern to Sound. Great Britain: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen Ltd. 226. Print.
- Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae. Athanasius Kircher. 1671. Retrieved 19 August 2010.
- Eds. Crangle, Richard, Heard, Mervyn, and van Dooren, Ine. "Devices and Desires". Realms of Light. London, England: The Magic Lantern Society, 2005. 11-45. Print.
- Vermeir, Koen. "The Magic of the Magic Lantern (1660-1700): On Analogical Demonstration and the Visualization of the Invisible." British Journal for the History of Science 38,2 (2005): 127-159. Print.
- Castle, Terry. "Phantasmagoria and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie." The Female Thermometer. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995. 140-167. Print.
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