Magic lanterns, also known as optical lanterns, provided one of the most popular forms of entertainment during their heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries, establishing many of the first 2-D special effects. Using an artificial light source and a combination of lenses, these devices enlarged small transparency images or miniature models and projected them onto a wall or screen. While most magic lanterns were designed as simple wooden boxes fitted with a handful of precision brass parts, a few were ornately decorated with exotic painted scenes or engraved metal casings.

In the 1600s, various European inventors developed simple devices for projecting imagery using a light source, mirror, and lens apparatus. Technological advances such as the invention of the telescope and microscope were made in the field of optics during this era, which also benefitted magic lanterns. Though its originator is still debated, some of the first optical lanterns were exhibited during the 1660s in cities across Europe by individuals like the Dutch physicist Christian Huygens, Danish mathematician Thomas Rasmussen Walgensten, and British optician Richard Reeves.

Early magic lanterns relied on the weak light of oil lamps, but they were much improved by the invention of the Argand lamp in 1784. The Argand lamp used a circular wick aerated by a glass chimney, increasing illumination power by up to 12 times compared to oil lamps. In the 1820s, the brilliantly focused “limelight,” created by igniting oxygen and hydrogen gases on a ball of lime, began to supersede the Argand. Towards the end of the 19th century, newer technologies like carbon arc, acetylene, and incandescent lamps would also be adapted for use in magic lanterns.

During the 1700s, public shows of magic lantern projections became more common, in part because of improved lenses and mechanical slide movements. These performances concentrated on the “magic” qualities of these optical devices. Early written accounts frequently describe the deception of viewers with spectral illuminations of spirits and ghosts. The genre of Phantasmagoria, called Fantasmagorie in France, relied on these fantastic scenes combined with lantern movements to create the illusion of figures approaching or receding from the viewer, thus heightening their ghostly effects.

Etienne Gaspard Robertson opened the first Fantasmagorie show in Paris in 1797, and it was an instant success. Robertson’s “Phantascope” utilized an Argand light system and a series of copper rails for easy movement. Its slides were carefully designed to minimize escaping light and were projected onto a transparent cloth in a completely blackened room, so that the images appeared to float in the air.

In addition to detailed transparency images of demons and ghosts, some Phantasmagorias also relied on miniature marionette sculptures which could be manipulated to perform actions, like a skeleton raising the lid of a coffin. Imperfections in the lantern’s focus and lighting actually added to these spectacular visions, giving the spirits a dreamlike authenticity impossible to obtain with perfectly clear projections. By the latter half of the 19th century, biunial and triunial lanterns were designed to use two or three projection lenses, respectively, which made them especially adapted for simulating dissolving or depth-of-field effects.

Prior to 1850, most magic lantern slides were hand-painted on glass, or created using a transfer method to reproduce many copies of a single etching or print. In the middle of th...

By the end of the 19th century however, the magic lantern was overtaken by the cinematograph, which projected so-called “living pictures.” Though the magic lantern couldn’t compete with these nascent movies, many of the techniques and tricks developed for its optical projections were adopted for motion pictures, like tracking shots, dissolves, and close-ups. Magic lanterns were soon relegated to being the warm-up act for movies, used to project advertisements before the real shows began. Eventually the apparatus evolved into the automatic photo slide projector, which was popular throughout the 20th century.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Magic Lantern Society

The Magic Lantern Society

This website is a great guide to the mysteries of the Magic Lantern, forerunner of today's slide projector (well, o… [read review or visit site]

The Richard Balzer Collection

The Richard Balzer Collection

The magic lantern section of The Richard Balzer Collection covers the machines, images, and cultural artifacts rela… [read review or visit site]

Magic-Lantern.eu

Magic-Lantern.eu

Magic-Lantern.eu's extensive photo galleries feature a wide range of items, such as magic lanterns, slides of vario… [read review or visit site]

de Luikerwaal

de Luikerwaal

This comprehensive Dutch site provides detailed information about the history of magic lanterns, the controversy su… [read review or visit site]

Collection D'Appareils Photo

Collection D'Appareils Photo

While we couldn't read everthing - it's mostly in French - the images on this site speak for themselves. Its an ext… [read review or visit site]

Magic Mirror of Life

Magic Mirror of Life

Jack and Beverly Wilgus have put together a great trove of information and images of camera obscura-related photos … [read review or visit site]

Cameras and Co

Cameras and Co

An impressive collection of antique and vintage cameras, this site features high-resolution images of over 120 came… [read review or visit site]

George Eastman House

George Eastman House

This showcase of vintage cameras and photography is plainly designed, but the camera collection and related referen… [read review or visit site]

Antique Cameras D. Tristram Ludwig

Antique Cameras D. Tristram Ludwig

David Tristram Ludwig shares high resolution images of his in-depth personal collection of antique cameras, includi… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

A Good Set Of 10 Astronomical Mechanical Magic Lantern Slides By Newton & Co.Antique Brass Magic Lantern Projector / Projection Lens3 Victorian Mechanical Magic Lantern Mahogany Framed SlidesSuperb Antique Magic Lantern Slide Projector By Houghton & Butcher + Case A6 Early Hand Painted Magic Lantern Slides Round Format 1800sMuseum Quality Antique Magic Lantern Slide Color Retouching DeskJehovah Witness I.b.s.a. Watchtower Photodrama Of Creation Magic Lantern #336Jehovah Witness I.b.s.a. Watchtower Photodrama Of Creation Magic Lantern #349Jehovah Witness I.b.s.a. Watchtower Photodrama Of Creation Magic Lantern #3341950's Reisch Beer Glass Slide For Movie House Projector Springfield Il IllinoisJehovah Witness I.b.s.a. Watchtower Photodrama Of Creation Magic Lantern #338Jehovah Witness I.b.s.a. Watchtower Photodrama Of Creation Magic Lantern #122Antique Victorian Magic Lantern Slide Projector Oil LampMagic Lantern Projector Fuel DrivenRoor Glass Slide 18.8 - New Never Used - Beautiful Color - Cypress Hill - Chong 1950s Vintage Christmas Tree Rotating Revolving Electric Magic Lantern Car-macAntique Magic Lantern Projector And Slides..original Box.....Lot Of 4 Vintage Magic Lantern Slide Coloring BookletsMagic Lantern Slide Victorian London The Strand Street Scene Omnibus HistoryC1890 Gorgeous Dissolving Color Wood Mount Lantern Slide Wa Dc Capitol In WinterMagic Lantern Slide Victorian London Holborn Viaduct Omnibus Social History1900 Magic Lantern Glass Slide Merced River Canyon Yosemite Valley RailroadPandora Estate Sterling Purple Pink & White Murano Art Glass Slide Charm 3.7gr 4 Magic Lantern Glass Slides Slide Christmas Santa & Angles 1900s8 Magic Lantern Slides - Scotland - The Forth Bridge 5 Dated 1893C1900 Niagara Dissolving View Terrapin Tower Color Photowood Mount Lantern SlideMagic Lantern Slide Victorian Mountaineering Mont Blanc Grand Mulets France AlpsMagic Lantern Projector Keystone View Co Includes Mazda 500w Ge BulbMagic Lantern Slide Victorian London Ludgate Hill Street Scene Social HistoryD 4 Vtg Odd Fellows Glass Magic Lantern Slides Degree Symbols Ioof C E Ward Co1900's Magic Lantern Glass Slide Navajo River Steamer On Sacramento RiverMagic Lantern Slide Victorian Mountaineering Summit Mont Blanc France ClimberMagic Lantern Slide Victorian London River Thames Barges Steamer Boats HistoryVintage Bulova Movie Theatre Ad Glass Slide, Original Box, Radio-mat Slide Co.1986 The Ten Year Book From Magic Lantern Society Of Great Britain Illustrated!!Magic Lantern Glass Slide - Astronomy Eclipse Of The SunAntique Civil War Battle Scene Magic Lantern Slide T.h Mcallister Optician #750Rare Magic Lantern Glass Slide Artic Region Three Musk OxenMagic Lantern Slide Vintage All Saints Street Hastings Sussex Social HistoryMagic Lantern Slide Victorian London Oxford Street Scene Omnibus Social HistoryMagic Lantern Slide Victorian London Temple Bar Law Street Scene Social HistoryMagic Lantern Slide Regents Circus London Street Scene Omnibus Social History9 Vintage German Glass Magic Lantern SlidesAntique Magic Lantern Black White Glass Picture Negative Slide Oil Region Texas4 X Bulova Movie Theatre Ad Glass Slide, Original Box, Radio-mat Slide Co.8 Edwardian Children’s Magic Lantern Slides Made By BingAntique Civil War Battle Scene Magic Lantern Slide T.h Mcallister Optician #7531989 Reprint Little Paul's Christmas Book Great Magic Lantern Show SceneRare Magic Lantern Glass Slide Artic Region Eskimo Stone KettlesRare Magic Lantern Glass Slide Artic Region Seal Hole In Ice Ellesmere IslandRare Magic Lantern Glass Slide Artic Region Man Paddling A Kayak UpernivlkRare Magic Lantern Glass Slide Artic Region Herd Of Musk Oxen Massed April 1915Rare Magic Lantern Glass Slide Artic Region Two Story Log Cabin W/stable In Rear7 Magic Lantern Glass Plate Negative Slide Keller Strass Farms Chicken 1900sRare Magic Lantern Glass Slide Artic Region David Putnam On Ship W/ducks HangingRare Magic Lantern Glass Slide Artic Region Team Of Eskimo Dogs Etah GreenlandMagic Lantern Slide Horse Drawn Charabanc Chamonix France French Social HistoryMagic Lantern Slide Victorian London Marlborough House St James Social HistoryC1880 Saul And The Witch Of Endor Ot Bible Hand-painted Wood Mount Lantern SlideMagic Lantern Slide - Religious - Biblical