The magic of the lantern and the magic of the cinema


Paul Sandby, The Laterna Magica, 1760. British Museum, Londyn

While the camera obscura was the prototype of a camera, the magic lantern had the same function, i.e. a that of a cinematographic projector.
A dark room and a blank wall. If necessary, a white sheet can be hung on it. Glass slides are moved inside the box from which magical images are displayed on the wall thanks to a source of light situated inside it. And us? “We are standing like mere children...“             
“Wilhelm, what is the world to our hearts without love? What is the magic-lantern without light? You have but to kindle the flame within, and the brightest figures shine on the white wall; and, if love only show us fleeting shadows, we are yet happy, when, like mere children, we behold them, and are transported with the splendid phantoms“.
J. W. Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

The magic lantern (Latin laterna magica) was used to display images from glass slides on the screen, and the principle of its operation consisted, in fact, of reversing the function of the camera obscura. The magic lantern was a prototype of modern slide projectors, enlargers, and film projectors.
The manuscript Liber Instrumentorum, by the Dutch monk Johannes de Fontana of 1420, is regarded as the first mentioning of an image projected with the use of a magic lantern. The technical development of this early projection device took place in Europe at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. The German theologian and Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) is most commonly (albeit wrongly) thought to have been the inventor of this optical device.
The magic lantern began its real career in the Jesuit theatre, where images related to the content of the play were displayed on the stage. One of the best theatres in Europe in the 17th century was in the Jesuit college in Poznań, where, due to its creator Jesuit priest Bartłomiej Nataniel Wąsowski, the projection potential of such lanterns was used to display words on the stage for emphasis.
In the late 18th century and throughout the entire 19th century, projection devices of this type, constructed in many varieties, were widely used in many fields of art, science and technology.
In the Europe of the 19th century, one of the most sought after forms of entertainment was the so-called phantasmagoria, which was a show of terror performed with the use of magic lanterns by travelling magicians and jugglers, but also by professional showmen. Some of the more famous presenters were Francois Seraphin from France, Etienne-Gaspard Robert (called Robertson) from Lieget, Holland, and Giuseppe Balsamo from Italy.
Over time, magic lanterns became equipped with more and more efficient light sources, modern lenses, technically sophisticated mechanisms for moving the slides in order to achieve, for example, special effects and primitive forms of moving images. The technological progress transformed these simple optical devices into modern slide and film projectors.

Elaborated by Kinga Kołodziejska (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Magic Lantern — slide projector from Austro-Hungary
Magic Lantern — slide projector by ICA