Magic Lantern show (Video)
Video showing the operation of a nineteenth century magic lantern projector.
Educational Value Statement
In the 20th century, cinema became the all-consuming popular visual entertainment. However on-screen entertainment was available well before the appearance of cinema.
Cinema owes a large debt to the magic lantern shows which preceded it by nearly 250 years and continued into the 20th century. It is the magic lantern which encapsulates, more than any other device, pre-cinema public entertainment.
Simply described, the magic lantern is a slide projector, incorporating a light source which is projected through lenses onto a screen. The placing of an inverted slide in between the light source and lens allows the image to be projected on a screen.
Early shows were small scale, often produced in public places such as street corners and pubs, or alternatively in homes by itinerant lanternists. The size of the projected image, as well as the picture quality of these early shows was limited by the crudity of the lanterns used.
Over time, as new and brighter illumination was discovered and lens systems in lanterns improved, the size of the projected image grew, allowing for greater public display. Within the home smaller, less sophisticated lanterns remained popular for showing static slides.
The phantasmagoria shows, which had their heyday in the late 18th and early part of the 19th century, can probably be credited with being the first all sensory entertainments. The back bone of the shows was the secret projection and sudden appearance in the darkened rooms of fast approaching ghosts, which just as quickly receded. Live actors, sounds, smells, sometimes even electric shocks were used to augment the effect of the ghostly projections and create an all round frightening experience.
These multi-faceted lantern shows, combining image and sound were continued throughout the 19th century. Subject matter varied, from educational lectures, to advertising, comic slides and illuminated narratives. The height of this type of entertainment was probably reached with the shows exhibited at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London (1838-1882) which employed a number of people behind the scenes in providing sound effects for the shows.
Advances on the standard static slide allowed a number of illusions to be projected. The invention of dissolving views allowed one image to merge into the next; day seamlessly becoming night, silent volcanoes suddenly erupting. The use of levers, pulleys and rackwork on slides likewise allowed movement to be projected onto the screen; from the beautiful kaleidoscopic effect of the chromatropes, to the comedic sleeping man swallowing a mouse.
A number of other visual entertainments amused and educated people. The 18th and especially the 19th century saw the creation of a number of so called philosophical and optical toys. Initially produced as scientific amusements many were designed to give the illusion of motion using the phenomena of the persistence of vision. It is this phenomenon which gave the thaumatrope, phenakistoscope and zoetrope their effectiveness. Each device consisted of a series of slightly different static images, which, when rapidly replacing each other within a person’s line of vision, created the perception of motion. Other visual entertainments focused on achieving three dimensional images. The earliest of this type of device is the peepshow.