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.

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