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    

Magic Lantern Slide Royal Irish Constabulary Police Ireland Rebellion HistoryAntique Mechanical Victorian Magic Lantern Slide Kaleidoscope Pattern ,The Praestantia Magic Lantern Slide Projector Riley Bros.bradford C.1895Mechanical Magic Lantern Slide~ Kaleidoscope~ Works Well & In Good Original CondOriginal Antique Magic Lantern & Slides Childs Victorian Toy Tinplate Circa 1890Large Antique Brass Magnifying Lens For Magic Lantern ? Camera ? Chart MagnifierBausch & Lomb B&l Microscope Crossline Alignment Glass Slide W/case Zeiss, LeitzGlass Magic Lantern Slide Rms Mauretania Going Into Dock C1910 Steam Ship CunardRare Ww1 Bruce Bairnsfather Old Bill Better Ole Magic Lantern Slide Syd ChaplinMagic Lantern Slide Cushendall Farming Plough Antrim N Ireland Social HistoryAntique Magic Lantern Old Slide Projector Brass Wood Metal Bellows SteriopticonMagic Lantern Slide Village Blacksmith Industry Anvil Metalwork Social HistoryMasonic Odd Fellows Antique Vintage Magic Lantern Glass Slide-color-skull, Eye5x Taxiphote Glass Slide Trays - J Richard Paris FranceMasonic Odd Fellows Antique Vintage Magic Lantern Glass Slide-color-skull16 Antique Magic Lantern Photograph Slides . Devon & CornwallStorage Box For Colour Slides Magic Lantern. Solid Wood. Capacity175 Slides. 9 Magic Lantern Photograph Glass Slides .. Devon & CornwallAuthentic Brighton Magic Lantern Gold Tone Earrings Je6281 New $78Masonic Odd Fellows Antique Vintage Magic Lantern Glass Slide-color-grave/casketReligious Magic Lantern Glass Slides - Group Of FiveNikon F5 Book - Magic Lantern Guides - 2001 Gunter Richter 192 PagesVintage Heinz Mellmann "the Valiant Little Animation Cell Lantern Glass Slide 12Kinetoscope Antique Glass Slide Projector Bosch Lomb Picture Show Kinetoscope~Achill Island Ireland Glass SlideWh Jackson Aztec Calender Stone Mexico Glass SlideMagic Lantern Slide Henry Viii Armour Tower Of London Gems British Royal HistoryMagic Lantern Slide Gobbins Sandy Cave Co Antrim Northern Ireland Social HistoryMagic Lantern Slide Carrickfergus Castle Antrim Northern Ireland Social HistoryMagic Lantern Keystone Glass Slide Picture Lot Plants Gardens Trees9 Superb Magic Lantern Photograph Slides . Devon & CornwallLantern Slide Eye Gate House Us 127 San Francisco Seal Rocks Golden HornReligious Magic Lantern Glass Slides - Group Of FiveComplete Set Of 21 Magic Lantern Glass Slides Of Bible History Mounted On WoodWashington Dc Carlisle House Alexandria Glass SlideWh Jackson Pottery Mexico Market Glass SlideRare!! Vint.1910s Glass Slide Greece Samos Island, VathyLantern Slide Eye Gate House B 5 Eskimo Family In IglooC1920 Placer Prospecting In Siberia Keystone Driller & Men Photo Lantern SlideChinese Tinted Slightly W/children Glass SlideIndian School Riverside California Hand Tinted Sprr (cracked ) Glass SlideChina Map Daily New Herald Shanghai Glass SlideUncommon California Yosemite 3 1/4" By Beattie Of Tasmania Glass SlideTrain On Brdige Vasseng St Gothard Switzerland Old Glass SlideHouse Buried Under The Snow Angentiere Mt Blanc Switzerland /gold/ Glass SlideIce Grotto Glacier Grindewald Switzerland Glass SlideMagic Lantern Slide Sierre Street Scene Valais Switzerland Swiss Alps MountainsMagic Lantern Slide Vintage North Porch Durham Cathedral Wearside Prince BishopsMagic Lantern Slide Vintage Card Trick Group Of Cute Children Social HistoryMagic Lantern Slide Sierre Street Scene Valais Switzerland Swiss Alps MountainsMagic Lantern Slide Stockalper Palace Brig Switzerland Swiss Alps Mountain16 Photograph Antique Magic Lantern Slides Of Devon & CornwallGlass Lantern Slide Captain Grismond Philipps Royal Marines Light InfantryGlass Magic Lantern Slide Echo Lake Profile House Franconia Notch New HampshireC1900 Mexico City Statue Of Christopher Columbus Men In Sombreros Lantern Slide8736. Magic Lantern Glass Slide Ca 1890 Siblings And A Doll Prob ConnecticutVintage Bausch & Lomb Microscope Lamp 31-33-85 Magic LanternReligious Magic Lantern Glass Slides - Group Of FiveReligious Magic Lantern Glass Slides - Joshua Commands The SunMagic Lantern Keystone Glass Slide Storage Drawers Numbered 1 - 600