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    

Vintage Magic Lantern? Glass Slides 1940s 1950s Lot People Places Things OthersLot Of 4 Odd Fellows Lodge Magic Lantern SlidesJean Schoenner Oil Lamp Magic Lantern Slide Projector,antique German Tin ToyA Collection Of 15 Magic Lantern Slides Of The PhilippinesOld Magic Lantern Glass Slides Keystone Box 25 SwitzerlandAntique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Crib Time A Good Yarn - AustraliaAntique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - While The Billy Boils - AustraliaIn Early Arizona Vintage Movie Glass Slide Bill Elliott Dorothy Gulliver 1938Collection 24 Cynicus Comic Social Political Glass Magic Lantern Slides C.1900sAntique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Ladies' On Camels Coolgardie - AustraliaLot Of 5 Magic Lantern Glass Slides For Odd Fellow LodgeOld Magic Lantern Glass Slides Keystone Box 25 ItalyLot Of 3 Magic Lantern Glass Slides For Odd Fellow LodgeLot Of 3 Magic Lantern Glass Slides For Odd Fellow LodgeGlass Magic Lantern Slide Children Eating Ice Creams With A Cat C1930 Antique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Coolgardie Bayley St 1895 - AustraliaBeautiful Antique Mint Silent Film Glass Slide Mary Miles Minter 'little Clown'Estee Lauder Collectible Solid Perfume- Magic LanternAntique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Camel Water Train Coolgardie - Australia #3Antique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Wardens Court Coolgardie - AustraliaC1870 Life Cycle Butterfly Caterpillar Pupa Butterfly Double Slip Lantern Slide34 Magic Lantern Glass Slides - LotMagic Lantern Slide Vintage Moon Planets Solar System Lunar Astronomy PuiseuxMagic Lantern Slide 1905 Eclipse Lunar Moon Sun Astronomy Solar System LowellAntique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Australian Outback And Aborigines Ref#2C1900 Holy Land Lantern Slide Howards Hotel Jerusalem PalestineC1910 Foot Schulze Shoes For Discriminating Men Color Theater Ad Lantern SlideAntique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Australian Gold Mine Ref#8Antique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Camel Water Train Coolgardie - AustraliaAntique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Lumberjack Steam Train - Canada Ref# 4Glass Lantern Slide Of Early Steam Delivery Lorry - Dunston Flour Mill 18 Victorian Magic Lantern Slides Of China & Asia 1890s-1900s7 Victorian Magic Lantern Slides Of Japan And Sleeping SamuraiVintage Embossed New Year Postcard; Magic Lantern Projection Of Girl's ImageMagic Lantern Slide - Weaving In Amritsar India C1900Bauch And Lomb Optical 20 In Ef For A Vintage Magic Lantern.Hallmark 2014 Santa's Magic Lantern Ornament Antique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Lumberjacks - Canada Ref#1Antique Glass Magic Lantern Slide - Lumberjacks - Canada Ref#5A Collection Of 58 Magic Lantern Slides Of South America, All By Keystone, 1905Glass Magic Lantern Slide Mountaineers Sitting Dated 1893 France Mont Blanc ?Antique Magic Lantern Slides Elephant`s Revenge Complete Set Of 8 BoxedLot Of 100 Antique Keystone Magic Lantern Glass Slides - Eye TestsVictorian Tale Glass Magic Lantern Slide J Ploughman No14 C1890 Man With ViolinMagic Lantern Slide Vintage Moon Surface Astronomy Solar System Galaxy PlanetsVintage Glass Slide Advertising Banking Business Check Book In Pocket AdC1905 Ca Redlands, Man Irragating Orange Orchards Photo Lantern Slide & ScriptC1900 China Chengdu Gate, Orchard Workers Enter Lantern SlideRare Magic Lantern Slide Rolls Royce Ambulance Brighton And HoveLantern Slide Keystone H222--a Suffragette ParadeMagic Lantern Slide - Speen Village. West Berkshire. England.Magic Lantern Guides: Nikon D7000, Simon Stafford 1454701315Vtg 3 1/4" X 4 1/4" Lantern Slide Projector Spencer Delineascope W/acc. + SlidesGlass Magic Lantern Slide Effect Of German Zeppelin Raid On London Houses C1915Magic Lantern Slide 1899 Partial Lunar Eclipse Solar System Astronomy GalaxyVintage Small Wiener Flachbrenner Magic Lantern Oil LampHand Painted Magic Lantern Slide Green Monkey, Bound,as ShownC1890 Us History Duel Between Hamilton & Burr, Hamilton Shot Color Lantern Slide3 Boxes Of Wellington Magic Lantern Slides - Hymnals- Words For Hymns Of The Day