The Origins and Development of the Magic Lantern

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The Origins and Development of the Magic Lantern


More than twenty-five hundred years ago, intellectuals from many cultures began to experiment with image projection in their attempts to understand the relationship between the mechanics of the human eye and the physical principles of light. Consequently, they discovered the value of image projection for religious, educational, and entertainment purposes. In the fifth century b.c., Chinese philosopher Mo Ti described a "collecting place" or "locked treasure room" where an inverted image appeared on a screen when light passed through a pinhole. During the fourth century b.c., Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) similarly described what would eventually be called the camera obscura; Chinese inventor Ting Huan is said to have perfected a device for projecting moving images in c. 207 b.c. Others attribute the earliest description of sequential animation to Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman poet and philosopher, in c. 65 b.c. Around the tenth century a.d., the Arab philosopher Ibn al Haytham (965-1038) described the mechanics of the pinhole camera. It is now thought that al Haytham was describing optic principles already well known throughout the world. By the Renaissance, ground glass lenses had made possible the improvement and widespread use of spectacles and telescopes, as well as improved focus in pinhole boxes or "cameras obscuras," from which the magic lantern derives.

In the seventeenth century, the optical principles of the camera obscura were applied to display multiple images painted on glass plates. This "magic lantern" technology incorporated the same basic components as modern optical projection systems—a subject in a holder, a light source, a projection lens, a condenser, or lens to redirect as much light as possible through the projection lens; and a ground, or viewing screen. The combined processes of controlled light projection through specialized lenses and intermittent movement of painted images in the magic lantern lay the foundation for modern slide and movie projectors.


The invention and first public demonstration of the magic lantern has long been a subject of debate. In 1646 Athanasius Kircher (c. 1602-1680), a German Jesuit priest, detailed improvements in "mirror writing" in Ars Magna lucis et umbrae. This method of projecting images etched into highly polished metal plates had earlier been described by Giambattista della Porta (c. 1535-1615) of Naples, Italy, in his Magiae naturalis libri viginti (1589). Kircher's modifications included the addition of a bi-convex lens arrangement, using either candle or sun as a light source. The mirror was replaced with images painted on a water-filled glass container. A few years after the initial publication of Ars Magna, Kircher's pupil, missionary Martin Martini, reportedly began touring Europe, illustrating his trip to China by projecting images from glass slides, a contraption Martini attributed to Kircher. In 1657, and again in 1671, Gaspar Schott (1608-1666), in his Magica Optica, described every type of magic lantern then known, and gave Kircher credit for originating the technology. In Kircher's expanded second edition of Ars Magna (1671), he illustrated a projection lantern, and took credit for its invention. Kircher's drawing indicated a lamp as light source, a lens, a mirror, slides, and an image projected on a wall. Interestingly, the slides were shown mounted in the inverted position in order to provide an upright presentation, and thus indicated his understanding of optics. Although the illustration contained some technical contradictions, it indicates Kircher's objective of projecting a series of images successively onto a large screen.

Some historians maintain that it was the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) who in around 1659 constructed the first working magic lantern. This view is supported by a letter that Huygens wrote to his brother Ludwig in which he described the lantern, and by reports of a slide presentation of Martini's trip by Huygens's friend, the Jesuit priest Andreas Tacquet. Other historians have argued that reports of magic lanterns predate Huygens's description, and that Huygens's model never advanced beyond the experimental stage. Yet Schott wrote that Tacquet used Kircher's method of projection to illustrate Martini's journey from China back to the Netherlands.

In the second edition of Ars Magna, Kircher himself attributed another magic lantern prototype to "the learned Dane who came to Lyons in 1665." It is thought that the reference was to Thomas Rasmussen Walgensten, a professor of mathematics who had begun touring Europe with an improved version of the magic lantern in the mid 1660's. Francesco Eschinardi, an Italian priest who has been credited with coining the term, "magic lantern," referred to a description of Walgensten's device, the scare lantern in his Centuriae Optical Pars Altera (1668). A similar reference was made by Claude François Milliet de Chales (1621-1678) a French mathematician. In the second edition of his Cursus seu mundus mathematicus, (1690), he included illustrations of Walgensten's version of the lantern. Milliet de Chales is another one of the people credited with the invention. In his book, he advanced lantern technology by addressing issues of focus and illumination, and by suggesting the procedure of moving a series of glass slides from side to side through the lantern apparatus. Nevertheless, he disclaimed any credit for inventing the process.

Despite the controversy over who actually produced the first lantern projector, by the mid-seventeenth century descriptions of prototypes and reports of demonstrations were being published throughout Europe. A London optician and acquaintance of Huygens named John Reeves began producing his own lanterns In 1663. In 1668, British scientist Robert Hooke described a universal projector for both transparent and opaque slides, which could use either sun or candle as a light source. In the same year, Francesco Eschinardi published Centuriae opticae pars altera seu dialogi optici pars tertia, which included a detailed description of the construction of the magic lantern. In 1672, Johann Christoph Sturm, professor of mathematics at the University of Nurnberg, introduced the lantern into Germany where he gave experimental lectures supposedly using Walgensten's model lantern and slides.

Twenty years later, William Molyneux (1656-1698), a professor at Trinity College, Dublin, published Dioptrica Nova (1692), in which he devoted a whole section to a description of a metal lantern with adjustable focusing lenses. Molyneux pointed out in the introduction to his book that there had previously been nothing written on mathematics in English, making his description of the lantern also the first work in English on that topic. Molyneux's illustration of the lantern indicated a candle as the light source, and a condensing lens (absent from the lantern constructed by Reeves in the 1660's). The illustration also indicates telescopic effects, the ability to project at a distance through a combination of lenses, and the inversion principle with the subject upside down, and the image right-side up. At the end of Molyneux' book was an advertisement for the lantern and components "made and sold by John Yarwell at the Archimedes and Three Golden Prospects. . .London."

As with many new inventions, the magic lantern was first used to entertain. However, Milliet de Chales noted that the lantern had value for scientific instruction, as it could be used to show enlarged images of insects and other specimens. Johann Zahn (fl. 1600s) advanced the idea of slide presentations for anatomical lessons, and in his Oculus artificialis teledioptricus sive telescopium (1685/1686) he suggested tracing book illustrations onto glass plates for that purpose. Zahn included illustrations of both cameras obscuras and magic lanterns, and suggested hiding the magic lantern out of sight of the audience for effect.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the popularity of the magic lantern motivated the development of prepared slides for sale to educators and to the public. For example, in 1705 Johann Conrad Creiling, a professor of natural history in Tübbingen proposed the production of educational magic lantern slides to accompany lectures in subjects such as natural history, biblical studies, geography, and mathematics. In 1713, B. H. Ehrenberger of Hildburghausen produced such slides, as described in his Novum et curiosum laternae magicae augmentum (1713). Ehrenberger's teacher, Hamberger, credited the origin of prepared slides to Erhard Weigel, a physicist who he said made them before 1700.


Improved projection technology had an immense impact on society in the following centuries. In many ways, because of the magic lantern's descendants—slide shows and motion pictures—people gained a new perspective about themselves and the world around them. Public moving picture exhibitions made everything larger than life, literally reflecting back upon society both its cultural and technological accomplishments and its social ills. But it also provided working people and a growing middle class with a new social outlet for entertainment.

The value of projecting multiple images became obvious to both scientists wishing to share new discoveries about natural phenomena and entrepreneurs anxious to make money entertaining the public. By the late eighteenth century, public exhibitions were already widespread. One of the most popular of the magic lantern shows were "Phantasmagoria" demonstrations, in which ghostly apparitions seemed to appear and vanish in the dark before viewers' eyes. Demand for such performances was so great that in 1798 E. G. Robertson took his London phantasmagoria show on the road to Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg.

In the nineteenth century, a variety of "optical" toys and gadgets were introduced concurrently with improvements in magic lantern technology. Among them was the "thaumatrope," developed by astronomer John Herschel and popularized by British doctor, John Ayrton Paris. As a cardboard disk with a different picture on either side is rotated rapidly on a string, the optical principle of persistence of vision takes over, and the viewer sees an optical illusion—one combined image. More elaborate devices were developed that worked on the same principle. The Daedalum, introduced by W.H. Horner in the mid-nineteenth century and refined by French inventor Pierre Desvignes under the name Zoetrope, was later patented in the United States by William F. Lincoln and in England by Milton Bradley. The device consisted of a drum with evenly spaced slits that spun on a pedestal. As the drum was turned, individual images drawn in a narrative sequence and wrapped around the inside of the drum would appear as one smooth action when viewed through the slits. The Zoetrope had become a popular toy by the late 1800s. In 1877, Emile Reynaud introduced the Praxinoscope, a modified version of the Zoetrope in which the image was viewed on mirrors placed in the center of the drum instead of directly through the slits.

By the late 1800s, larger, more complex versions of these devices were being developed for commercial use. More streamlined methods of producing and displaying slides were introduced, advancing from painted glass strips to flexible gelatin or film. In 1892, Reynaud gave the first public exhibition of his commercial Praxinoscope, using long strips of hand-painted frames. The jerky effect of Reynaud's method would be corrected by the likes of the Lumiere brothers in France and Thomas Edison (1847-1931) in the United States with the introduction of moving pictures. Movie projection uses the same principle of persistence of vision as the thaumatrope toy: Multiple frames of individual pictures snapped in rapid succession give the illusion of continuous motion when projected at rapid speed. In 1895 the Lumiere brothers exhibited the first short motion pictures in France using their cinematograph. Quickly, others with new versions of moving picture lanterns followed, including Edison and Georges Melies, who became famous for his special effects.

Carousel and tray slide projectors became a mainstay of educational, corporate, and industrial facilities by the middle of the twentieth century. In recent years, innovations in digital technology have broadened the scope of displayed images far beyond that introduced by Kircher and his contemporaries. Today, close-up images of a ball game or concert can be projected to thousands of people on giant screens. Enormous curved screen IMAX movie theaters, originally installed in museums, have made their way to shopping malls and now include 3D effects. Early projections of mystifying images have modern parallels in holographic presentations and laser light shows. In medical centers, expectant parents watch their developing offspring through sonograms projected on lab monitors. Millions of people around the world can view the same images at once through satellite and internet broadcasts, making what was once larger than life seem smaller and more accessible.


Further Reading


Chadwick, W. J. The Magic Lantern Manual. London: Frederick Warne, 1878.

Hammond, John H. The Camera Obscura: A Chronicle. Bristol: Adam Hilger, 1981.

Liesegang, Franz Paul. Dates and Sources: A contribution to the History of the Art of Projection and to Cinematography. Hermann Hecht, ed/trans. London: The Magic Lantern Society of Great Britain, 1986.

Lindberg, David. Studies in the History of Medieval Optics. London: Variorum Reprints, 1983.

Weiss, Richard J. A Brief History of Light and Those That Lit the Way. River Edge, NJ: World Scientific, 1995.

Internet Sites

Burns, Paul T. "The Complete History of the Discovery of Cinematography."

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The Origins and Development of the Magic Lantern

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