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Before there were wall-mounted, 84", 3D plasma televisions, before there were IMAX cinemas with Dolby 7.1 Professional audio surround sound, before even, amazingly, there were 'sports bars' - there was the 'magic lantern'. Yes, the humble magic lantern with its glass plate slides, was the distant ancestor of everything from the 70mm movie projector to the TV screen we see everywhere - and a lot more. 'Dinosaur is to bird, as magic lantern is to PowerPoint presentation'. Designed to entertain and educate, the magic lantern soon grew into a new form of mass entertainment.

Said to have its roots in 17th century Italy, the magic latern basically consists of an enclosed light source (initially a candle), an aperature through which the light exits the closed body, a glass or other transparent medium onto which the original picture is drawn, painted or printed and through which the light flows, and a lens to focus and project the image thus formed. There are traces of the Roman camera obscura, and shadow shows, in the idea behind a magic lantern, and one of the earliest (and dimmest) models was the Sturm Lantern of 1676 - the image projected was very small, too.

One of the first practitioners to exploit the visual impact of the lantern on an audience was Etienne Gaspard Robertson (1763-1837). In 1797, he devised a series of horror shows or phantasmagoria, full of ghosts and apparitions, using back projections onto a translucent screen in a Paris theater. This thrilled and horrified his patrons. He went on to have great success in Vienna and St Petersburg. Around the same time, wandering projectionists - many of them Italians - carrying their lanterns on their backs, began perambulating across Europe giving shows. Slides consisted of miniature colored paintings on glass, or printed text.

By the 19th century, mass production by around 28 different companies in Britain alone (e.g. Dancer Ltd. of Manchester) and many more in France, Germany and the U.S.A. had made simple magic lanterns cheap enough for a family to own, and companies like Bamforth of Holmfirth in Yorkshire would sell you commercially produced sets of colored slides on an amazingly broad range of subjects. You could get a 'digest' of recent news in photographs (King Edward VII of England meeting the Wright Brothers in France in 1908, for example), slide sets of foreign countries or exotic animals or a series of morally-uplifting images about 'good deeds' to show to your family!

From 1838 to 1876, the most spectacular magic lantern shows ever were given by Professor John Henry Pepper and his team at the Royal Polytechnic Institute, Regent Street, London. Up to six large format lanterns using oxy-hydrogen limelight (a jet of flaming oxygen and hydrogen gases was aimed at a piece of calcium oxide which give off intense light, as it was heated to over 4,000 degrees F) were used to throw huge images on a 25 foot wide screen. Live music and a whole special effects crew enhanced the experience, and the slides used often had primitive animation, dissolves and other effects.

Smaller projectors did not use limelight, but sometimes used ether (which was highly flammable) or mineral oil burners. Sometimes primitive incandescent filament bulbs, and the new-fangled electricity was used (showmen sometimes brought their own, fully-charged accumulators with them).

As well as commercial shows to the general public, many clubs, schools, societies and religious groups gave lantern shows. Often they would use slide sets of an 'uplifting' nature, and these either came with a printed set of notes or suggestions for speakers. Many of the shows were interactive, with audience participation, or a song or recital. Some actual slide sets are:- 'The Story Of The Mayflower: A Lecture On The Pilgrim Fathers' - Rev. Arthur Hallack, 1919, 60 slides; 'Among The Lowest; Or, Darkest New York' - Victor A Wood, 1896, 64 slides; 'The Storming Of Castle Alcohol: An Allegorical And Pictorial Description Of The Evil Work And Final Overthrow Of Sir Alcohol And His Castle' - W. G. Hancock & R. H. Mather, 19th century, 12 slides

Above, you can see a replica of a 19th century biunial lantern - it resembles one made by W.C. Hughes and Co., Isle of Wight. This is located in the Wesleyan chapel at Beamish - The Living Museum of the North, County Durham. This is a working replica, and is used to give short examples of religious slide shows. Biunial lanterns had two completely different lens and light source systems. This allowed sophisticated dissolves and optical effects - please note the flapper covers on the lenses which aided in several of these. Trade papers such as the 'British Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly' (published until 1919) and 'The Optical Magic Lantern & Photographic Enlarger' (published 1889 - 1903) indicated a strong commercial market for lanterns and their accessories.

It should all have come to a shuddering halt on the 28th December, 1895 when the brothers Louise & Auguste Lumière gave the first public showing of moving pictures using their 'Cinematographie' at the Grande Café, Boulevard des Capucines, Paris. Amazingly, the magic lantern survived. The world's only museum dedicated to the medium is the Magic Lantern Castle Museum, San Antonio, Texas, and there are clubs and societies around the world. The Magic Lantern Society, London has a vigorous program of research and lectures, and some members will give talks and real magic lantern shows to other groups and interested parties. Their only concession to modernity is to use a low-wattage halogen electric bulb for illumination - this minimizes the damage to original fragile slides.

The magic lantern might be the ancestor of modern day visual entertainment, but it is still being used, today. A magnificent idea!

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Originally posted to shortfinals on Wed May 22, 2013 at 07:52 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech and History for Kossacks.

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