Magic lanterns

Important as camera obscuras are to the history of screen projection, the invention known as the magic lantern was associated far more closely with projection screens – because it is, in effect, a slide projector by another name, as well as ‘the forerunner of all film screens’ (Kittler 70). Lit by a variety of sources from candles and kerosene lamps to limelight and electricity, magic lanterns work like a camera in reverse – they shine light out through a lens and project it onto a screen, with a static or moving slide or slides inside them, between the light and the lens. The results can be incredible – as is evident if you’re lucky enough to see a lantern show today, where beautifully hand-painted glass slides are still used, usually accompanied by narration and music as would have been the norm in the seventeenth century.

A drawing of a magic lantern projecting an image on the wall

Magic lanterns were an apparatus beloved of itinerant showmen from the 1660s on, offering as they did a freedom from the more elaborate set-up required for camera obscura shows. In their reliance upon a projection screen, too, it is easy to see why cultural theorists hold that the magic lantern show rather than other forms of pre-cinematic technology ‘prefigured the conventions of the projection and screen practice associated with the cinema’ (Popple and Kember 25). Nor is it surprising, if you put yourself in the position of someone in the seventeenth century, that magic lantern shows were so popular: As Paul Clee writes, ‘In a world with so few images, it’s no wonder that lantern shows, with their enlarged, luminous colored pictures, were such a marvel’ (12).

Although there’s evidence of earlier versions of the magic lantern, most historians credit the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens with its invention in 1659. This is despite the fact that a Jesuit priest named Althanius Kircher wrote in his 1646 book, Ars magnus lucis e umbae (The great art of light and shadow), about a “catoptric lamp” he used to project images onto a wall in a darkened room. Huygens is credited because of his major innovation in lantern technology, which was the replacement of images etched on mirrors from earlier lanterns such as Kircher’s with images painted on glass. This is what paved the way for the use of colour and for double-layered slide projections (generally used to simulate movement) that typified the most spectacular, detailed and entertaining magic lantern shows.

Again, though, it seems that the “invention” of this new projection technology cannot be attributed to just one individual but was very much the result of several minds applied to new and different, ever-evolving ways of creating images to project on screens.

Kircher, despite not making the leap from using mirrors to glass-etched slides, did contribute much to the field of optics. And, according to gossip and folklore, he also came up with a very inventive use for the lantern:
While visiting his unfaithful believers in the evening, he hid a simple magic lantern under his cowl. When talking did not help anymore, he switched to other, tougher measures. On the glass of his lantern he had painted a realistic image of the death, which he projected from the outside on the parchment windows of the simple farmhouses. That was really successful and had a marked effect. The next Sunday morning his church was packed to the very roof again. (Cited from “The miracle of the magic lantern,” at

It was neither Huygens nor Kircher who first used the magic lantern to its full commercial and narrative potential, however, but Thomas Walgenstein, a Danish scientist and entertainer who took it on tour across Europe in 1664.

Screens for magic lantern shows were often ‘made of calico and soaked in starch and gum arabic in order [to]… become translucent, and stretched out to approximately twenty feet wide’ (Hanson 9). The increased importance of the screen to projection technology is clear here, as previously the tendency had been to use either a plain sheet of cotton or canvas, or even just a wall. But the emergence of luminous painted glass slides – with their bright colours and detailed images – seemingly spurred on developments in screen technology, even when back projection was sometimes still used for shows. Again, these early developments in projection screen technology were built on in later years – not only when cinema was born in the 1890s, but also in the 1930s when plastics started to replace cloth screens, and later when various coatings were used that gave rise to terming the cinema “the silver screen”.

High quality image of a magic lantern

Image used with kind permission from

The magic lantern developed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and remained popular into the nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries. And while Kircher might be chastised for pretending to invent the technology when he did not (it seems that he updated a drawing in the 1671 edition of his book without acknowledging that this was inspired by Huygens!), he can and should be credited with one important aspect of advancing people’s understanding of and relationship to projection technology. Kircher – presumably having learned from his own experience with his errant parishioners – took the lead in demystifying the projected image by explaining how it operated, and by encouraging exhibitors ‘to explain the actual process to audiences so that these spectators would clearly understand that the show was a catoptric art (involving reflection and optics), not a magical one’ (Musser 17). Given the fact that earlier showmen-scientists such as della Porta were charged with sorcery for their use of projected images, this seems a sensible and inspired approach for Kircher to have taken, as he was clearly concerned having ‘read of this art in many histories in which the common multitudes look on this catoptric art to be the workings of the devil’ (Ars magna, cited in Musser 18).

Multiple projectors and projection screens to scare the audience: phantasmagorie

Multiple projectors and projection screens to make a show as scary as possible: phantasmagorie

Ever more spectacular magic lantern shows were projected – and while all used a screen for at least part of the act, projections were also created that seemed to float in mid-air, ghost-like, especially by mediums and those who wished to scare their audiences! Etienne Gaspar Robert (“Robertson”) purportedly created such mixed shows to great affect in France from the late 1790s, and the “Phantasmagorie” was born. These shows often used multiple projectors, with one static projector providing a backdrop and a number of smaller, mobile projectors operated individually and moved around behind the screen to create the illusion of movement. This is especially interesting as it seems almost to reverse the production methods of films – as Charles Musser observes – where it is production that requires multiple skilled individuals, while projection can be carried out by one comparatively unskilled person, including those of us who today project onto screens in our living rooms!

In the eighteenth century, many types of slides were fashioned by craftsmen, including sets of slides that used together created an illusion of movement on the projection screen. Some of these used several overlapping sheets of glass, while others were circular and needed to be rotated to create the impression of movement. Higher quality lenses were also developed to improve the clarity of the projected images on screens that were often still just whitewashed walls or sheets of cotton. While creativity and showmanship continued to impress audiences with the assistance of magic lantern projections, the new technologies did prove to have some dangers other than frightening spectators. In the early 1800s, one Mr Martin from the USA ‘experienced what may have been the first projector-related fire in American screen history, destroying both his projector and the museum’ in which he was exhibiting – and also cost the lives of six members of the audience (Musser 27).

Continue to the next era in projection screen history: the birth of cinema