Magic lantern

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This article is about the early type of image projector. For other uses, see Magic lantern (disambiguation).
19th century magic Lantern with printed slide inserted

The magic lantern or laterna magica is an early type of image projector employing painted pictures or photographs on sheets of glass, a lens and a bright light source. It was mostly developed in the 17th century and commonly used for entertainment purposes. It became a common medium for educational purposes around 1800 until it was succeeded by slide projectors in the 1950s.


A page of Willem 's Gravesande's 1720 book Physices Elementa Mathematica with Van Musschenbroek's magic lantern projecting a minotaur. The depicted magic lantern is the oldest known to be preserved and is in the collection of Museum Boerhaave, Leiden

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 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.[1] Some lanterns, including those of Christiaan Huygens and Jan van Musschenbroek, used 3 lenses.

Originally the pictures were hand painted on glass slides. Initially figures were rendered with black paint but soon transparent colors were also used. Sometimes the painting was done on oiled paper. Usually black paint was used as a background to block superfluous light, so the figures could be projected without distracting borders or frames. Many slides were finished with a layer of transparent lacquer, but in a later period cover glasses were also used to protect the painted layer.[2] Most hand-made slides were mounted in wood frames with a round or square opening for the picture.[3]

After 1820 the manufacturing of hand colored printed slides started, often making use of decalcomania transfers.[4] Many manufactured slides were produced on strips of glass with several pictures on them and rimmed with a strip of glued paper.

Not long after the introduction of photography in 1839 photographic images could be projected with magic lanterns.

Apart from sunlight, the only light sources available at the time of invention in the 17th 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.[5]


Several types of projection systems existed before the invention of the magic lantern. For these precursors:

Further information: projector

The magic lantern can be seen as a further development of the Camera Obscura. This is a natural phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen (or for instance a wall) is projected through a small hole in that screen as an inverted image (left to right and upside down) on a surface opposite to the opening. It was known at least since the 5th century BCE and thoroughly experimented with in darkened rooms at least since circa 1000 CE. The use of a lens in the hole has been traced back to circa 1550.

In the 17th century there was an immense interest in optics. The telescope and microscope were invented (in 1608 and the 1620s respectively) and apart from being useful to some scientists, such instruments were especially popular as entertaining curiosities with people who could afford them.[6] The magic lantern would prove to be a perfect successor.

Huygens' 1659 sketches for a projection of Death taking off his head

Christiaan Huygens, the famous Dutch scientist, is nowadays widely accepted as the true inventor of the magic lantern. He knew about Athanasius Kircher's 1646 edition of Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae which described a primitive projection system with a focusing lens and text or pictures painted on a concave mirror reflecting sunlight. He was also acquainted with inventor Cornelis Drebbel who used some unidentified optical techniques to transform himself and summon wonderful appearances in magical performances. In 1659 Huygens is reported to have mentioned "la laterne magique" in a short list of his inventions[7] and on another document from the same year he sketched some phases of a skeleton taking off its skull "for representations by means of convex glasses with the lamp".[8] Huygens probably only constructed the lantern to amuse young family members and soon seemed to regret it as he thought it was too frivolous. He expressed his shame about it in letters to his brother Lodewijk and even asked him to sabotage the lantern their father had ordered to show to the court of King Louis XIV of France at the Louvre.[9]

Thomas Rasmussen Walgensten, a Danish mathematician, studied at the university of Leyden in 1657-58 and was acquainted with Christiaan Huygens. It is unclear if one was inspired by the other or if they even may have collaborated on the development of the magic lantern. At least from 1864 until 1870 Walgensten was giving magic lantern shows in Paris, Lyon, Rome and Copenhagen,[6] and before 1671 he "sold such lanterns to different Italian princes in such an amount that they now are almost everyday items in Rome" according to Athanasius Kircher.[10] When Walgensten projected an image of Death at the court of King Frederick III of Denmark some courtiers were scared, but the king dismissed their cowardice and requested to repeat the figure three times. The king died a few days later.[6]

Further history[edit]

Illustration from Kircher's 1671 Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae
1737 etching/engraving of an organ grinder with a magic lantern on her back by Anne Claude de Caylus (after Edme Bouchardon)

The oldest known publication about the magic lantern is in the 1671 second edition of Athanasius Kircher's book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae[5][11] Kircher claimed that Thomas Walgensten reworked his ideas from the previous edition into a better lantern, which Kircher then continued to describe and which was illustrated in a confusing manner.[12] The pictures seem technically incorrect or at least to contradict the written text, with both the projected image and the transparencies shown upright (the apparatus could work this way if it didn't use a lense). The projected image in one illustrations shows a person in purgatory or hellfire and the other depicts Death with a scythe and an hourglass. According to legend Kircher secretly used the lantern at night to project the image of Death on windows of apostates to scare them back into church.[13] Kircher did suggest in his book that the images would be more effective when the lantern would be hidden in a separate room so the audience would be ignorant of the cause of their appearance.

The earliest reports and illustrations of lantern projections suggest that they were all intended to scare the audience, prompting French engineer Pierre Petit, who saw a show by Walgensten, to call the apparatus "lanterne de peur" (lantern of fear) in a 1664 letter to Huygens.[14] Surviving lantern plates and descriptions from the next decades prove that the new medium was not just used for horror shows, but that all kinds of subjects were projected.

From at least the 1730s the use of magic lanterns started to become more widespread when travelling showmen, conjurers and storytellers added them to their repertoire. The travelling lanternists were often called Savoyards (they supposedly came from the Savoy region in France) and became a common sight in many European cities.[6]

In France in the 1770s François Dominique Séraphin used magic lanterns to perform his "Ombres Chinoises" (Chinese shadows), a form of shadow play.[citation needed]

Magic lanterns had also become a staple of science lecturing and museum events since Scottish lecturer Henry Moyes’s tour of America in 1785–86, when he recommended that all college laboratories procure one. French writer and educator Stéphanie Félicité, comtesse de Genlis popularized the use of magic lanterns as an educational tool in the late 1700s when using projected images of plants to teach botany. Her educational methods were published in America in English translation during the early 1820s.[15] A type of lantern was constructed by Moses Holden between 1814–15 for illustrating his astronomical lectures.[16]

In 1821 Philip Carpenter's London company, that would become Carpenter and Westley after his death, started manufacturing a sturdy but lightweight and transportable "Phantasmagoria lantern" with an Argand style lamp, which produced high quality projections and was suitable for use in classrooms. Carpenter also developed a "secret" copper plate printing/burning process to mass-produce glass lantern slides with printed outlines, which were then easily and quickly hand painted ready for sale.[17] These "coppper-plate sliders" contained three or four very detailed 4" circular images mounted in thin hardwood frames. The first known set The Elements of Zoology became available in 1823, showing over 200 images in 56 frames of zoological figures, classified according to the system of the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. The same year many other slides appeared in the company's catalogue: "The Kings and Queens of England" (9 sliders taken from David Hume’s History of England), "Astronomical Diagrams and Constellations" (9 sliders taken from Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel’s textbooks), "Views and Buildings", Ancient and Modern Costume (62 sliders from various sources).[18] Fifteen sliders of the category "Humorous" provided some entertainment, but the focus on education was obvious and very successful.

Story about a boy falling in a barrel of honey.

The mass production of slides also meant that the magic lantern now became affordable to the common men, opening a market for smaller lanterns with smaller glass sliders which instead of wooden frames usually had colorful strips of paper glued around their edges.

Although the popularity of magic lanterns waned after the introduction of movies in the 1890s, they remained a common medium until slide projectors came into widespread use during the 1950s.


Main article: Phantasmagoria
A look inside a magic lantern in the collection of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis

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.[19] Use of the magic lantern by charlatans who claimed to summon ghosts was quite common. Sometimes this was practiced in religious ceremonies. For example, Count Cagliostro used it to "raise dead spirits" in Egyptian masonry rituals. Johann Georg Schröpfer began using the magic lantern in séances in the 1760s and added many tricks including mirror projections, hollow voices issuing from hidden speaking tubes, assistants impersonating ghosts, the eerie sounds of a glass harmonica, thunderclaps and projection 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.[20]

Paul Philidor refined the techniques, including mounting the lantern on a trolley. In his shows he led people into thinking that he had summoned ghosts by requests and raised spirits of revolutionary figures. However, Philidor's show was eventually closed by the authorities due to their paranoia.[20] 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.[21]

Three slide projector with dissolve transition (1886)

The next famous conjurer to utilize the magic lantern was Etienne-Gaspard Robert, 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.[22] He put the magic lantern onto wheels and patented this under the name of 'fantascope'.[19] 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.[22]

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.[19] His shows were extremely successful.[22] 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.[22]

Moving images[edit]

Mice jump into the mouth of a sleeping bearded man on a popular mechanical slide from circa 1870

The magic lantern was not only a direct ancestor of the motion picture projector as a means for visual storytelling, but it could itself be used to project moving images. Christiaan Huygens' 1659 sketches (see above) suggest he animated the skeleton to have it take off its head and place it back on its neck. This would mean that the very first magic lantern demonstrations may already have included projections of simple animations.

Motion was mostly limited to two phases of a movement or transformation, or a more gradual movement (like a train passing through a landscape). These limitations made subjects with repetitive movements popular, like the sails on a windmill turning around or children on a seesaw. Movements could be repeated over and over and could be performed at different speeds.

A common technique that is comparable to the effect of a panning camera makes use of a long slide that is simply pulled slowly through the lantern and usually shows a landscape, sometimes with several phases of a story within the continuous backdrop.

Some suggestion of movement was simply achieved by alternating between pictures of different phases of a motion, but most magic lantern animations used two glass slides projected together, one with the stationary part of the picture and the other with the part that was to move. Variations include:

  • slipping slides: the moving part was simply slipped over the stationary one by hand. Many showed before and after effects or end phases of a repetitive movement. These were supposed to be operated quickly and resulted in jerky movements. The moving part could also be used for the illusion of more natural movements; a common example had a creature that could move the pupils in its eyes as if it was looking in all directions. Quite convincing illusions of moving waves on a seas or lake could also be achieved with this method.[23]
  • masking slides: many slipping slides and some other mechanical slides had black backgrounds on the stationary part and black paint on portions of the moving part(s) that would mask parts of the underlying image. This made it possible to hide the previous position of limbs or heads (as an example for quickly operated versions), or make a nose grow very long (as an example for gradual movement).[23]
  • lever slides: the moving part was operated by a lever. These could show a more natural movement than slipping slides and were mostly used for repetitive movements, for instance a woodcutter raising and lowering his axe, or a girl on a swing.[23]
  • pulley slides: a pulley rotates the moving part and could for instance be used to turn the sails on a windmill[24]
  • rack and pinion slides: turning the handle of a rackwork would rotate or lift the moving part and could for instance be used to turn the sails on a windmill or for having a hot air balloon take off and descend. A more complex astronomical rackwork slide showed the then known eight planets and their satellites orbiting around the sun.[23] A version with a trapeze artist with articulated joints showed extra motion in bending and jiggling limbs.

Mechanical slides with different special effects include:

  • the Chromatrope (invented 1846 by Sir David Brewster), which produced dazzling colorful geometrical patterns by rotating two glass discs in opposite directions with a double rackwork or pulley mechanism[23]
  • the Eidotrope, a colourless variation of the Chromatrope using counter-rotating perforated metal discs[23]
  • the Cycloidotrope (circa 1865) which had an adjustable stylus bar drawing geometric patterns on sooty glass while hand cranked during projection.[25]
  • a Moiré pattern slide with two, contra rotating, brass rimmed discs perforated with a regular pattern of small holes[25]
  • a Newton colour wheel slide which by spinning it fast enough blends seven colours into a white circle[25]
  • a snow effect slide, which adds snow to another slide (preferably of a winter scene) by rotating a flexible loop of material pierced with tiny holes[25]

Dissolving view slides were produced for lanterns with two or more lenses. To dissolve from one slide to another a mechanical device could be fitted on the magic lantern, which locked up the a diaphragm on the first slide slowly whilst a diaphragm on a second slide was opened simultaneously. Typical examples had landscapes that dissolved from day to night or from summer to winter.[23]

Versions of the magic lantern were used to project transparent variations of the phénakisticope. These were adapted with a mechanism that spins the disc and a shutter system. Duboscq produced some in the 1850s and Thomas Ross patented a version called "Wheel of life" in 1869 and 1870.


Some enthusiasts claim that the brilliant quality of color in lantern slides is unsurpassed by successive projection media. The magic lantern and lantern slides are still popular with collectors and can be found in many museums. Museums usually prefer to demonstrate their slide collections through modern media and genuine public lantern shows are relatively rare; several regular performers state to be the only one in their part of the world. These include Pierre Albanese and glass harmonica player Thomas Bloch live Magic Lantern/Phantasmagoria shows since 2008 in Europe[26] and The American Magic-Lantern Theater.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ "All about lantern slides (1)". 
  3. ^ "All about magic lantern slides (2)". 
  4. ^ "All about lantern slides (1)". 
  5. ^ a b Waddington, Damer. "Introduction". Panoramas, Magic Lanterns and Cinemas. Channel Islands, NJ: Tocan Books. xiii-xv. Print.
  6. ^ a b c d Rossell, Deac (2002). "The Magic Lantern". 
  7. ^ "De Luikerwaal". 
  8. ^ huygens, christiaan. "Pour des representations par le moyen de verres convexes à la lampe" (in French). 
  9. ^ Huygens, Christiaan (1662-04-19). "letter to Lodewijk Huygens" (in French). 
  10. ^ "mageng.html". 
  11. ^ Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae. Athanasius Kircher. 1671. Retrieved 19 August 2010. 
  12. ^ Rendel, Mats. "Athanasius Kircher". 
  13. ^ "The miracle of the magic lantern". 
  14. ^ Petit, Pierre (1664-11-28). "letter to Christiaan Huygens". 
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Holden, Moses (DNB00) - Wikisource, the free online library". Retrieved 2015-09-17. 
  17. ^
  18. ^ Philip Carpenter, 1823, A Companion to the Magic Lantern: Part II.
  19. ^ a b c Barber, Theodore X. "Phantasmagorical Wonders: The Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America." Film History 3,2 (1989): 73-86. Print.
  20. ^ a b 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.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ a b c d Castle, Terry. "Phantasmagoria and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie." The Female Thermometer. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995. 140-167. Print.
  23. ^ a b c d e f g "Luikerwaal - Mechanical Slides". 
  24. ^ "Magic lantern - collection of moving magic lantern slides part 1.". Luikerwaal. 
  25. ^ a b c d "Luikerwaal - Mechanical special effects slides". 
  26. ^
  27. ^

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