Magic Lantern

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17th Century: Debated Origins

Kircher's incorrect engraving of the magic lantern in the second edition of Ars Magna.

The beginnings of the magic lantern trace back to 1588, when Italian scholar, Giovanni Battista Porta, discovered a simple projection method. Porta’s projection involved sketching a design on the surface of a mirror, which was reflected by the sun onto a white wall or screen (Barnes, 8). A few decades later, Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher based in Rome, took Porta’s idea to an improved level in his book Ars Magna lucis et umbrae in 1646, where he describes several different projection methods with mirrors and lenses like Porta. Similarly, Kircher used a painted subject projected on a mirror, but instead of using the sun’s reflection, he used a magnifying lens, which enlarged the image on the screen. Kircher also figured out that creating reversed text to be reflected on the mirror would appear as it should on the screen or wall on which it was being projected. In addition to these discoveries, Kircher also illustrated a device that would show a series of images by reflection, utilizing an octagonal drum with several painted images rotated by handle (9).

One of the devices that Kircher describes in Ars Magna, the lucerna capotrica, was confused for the magic lantern and lead to the crediting of Kircher as the inventor of the magic lantern. According to John Barnes’ History of the Magic Lantern, there is no evidence that Kircher explicitly knew whether or not his invention was a magic lantern. However according to various pieces of evidence before Kircher’s clear articulation of the magic lantern in the second edition of Ars Magna, the inventor of the magic lantern is either Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens or Danish mathematician Thomas Rasmussen Walgensten. Huygens appeared to have been working on a lantern for representations of paintings in a darkened room through various letters with his brother Ludwig in 1662, while Walgensten had been referenced as developing a magic lantern in several letters between Huygens and French scientist Pierre Petit in 1664. Walgensten however also is said to have demonstrated the magic lantern across Europe in Paris, Lyons, Rome, and Copanhagen.

Though this evidence points to Huygens or Walgensten, Kircher felt that they had taken his invention, so in the second edition of Ars Magna, Kircher took offense that Walgensten had been demonstrating the magic lantern. Kircher accused Walgensten of plaigiarizing his ideas and presented two different uses of magic lanterns in the new edition, which were more complex and thorough than any other depiction of the lantern at that time (Zielinski 136). However, these graphic representations were technically incorrect, as Kircher had placed the transparent slide images in front of the lens, instead of between the light and the lens.

Late 18th & Early 19th Century Development: The Phantasmagoria

Entienne Robertson's Fantasmagorie in 1799.

Born in 1763, Entienne Gaspard Robertson was responsible for the evolution of magic lantern use. In 1799, he staged his first exhibit in Paris, which he called the “Fantasmagorie” derived from the Greek term for “phantom assembly” (Barber 74). Due to Robertson’s improved version of the magic lantern, which he called a “fantascope” with its improved artificial lighting source of a tubular wick, allowed Robertson to producer more powerful projection. With enhanced projection, Robertson was able to stage his “Fantasmagorie” in bigger venues (Barber 75). Robertson’s lantern also had a table attached to two wooden rails, so that the lantern could move fluidly back and forth. This new feature to the magic lantern allowed Robertson to create “phantom images” that could slowly appear and grow larger or be taken away within an instant (Barber 75).

Entienne Robetson's Fantascope

With these new capabilities, Robertson could stage much more elaborate and dramatic lantern shows in the “Fantasmagorie.” Prior to Robertson, magic lantern shows were relatively small affairs held in people's homes (Barnes 28). During Robertson's first exhibit in Paris, Robertson created a spooky experience for his audience. The crowd entered a dimly lit room. As they settled, Robertson gave a speech that said to be careful with “superstition and impostors,” essentially saying that everything they were about to see- ghosts and illusions- were indeed real (Barber 74). Robertson then cut the lights in the room and locked the doors. Sound effects of rain, thunder, and funeral bells, and music from water-filled glasses created an eerie soundtrack for the audience (Barber 74). Meanwhile, Robertson conducted his projections from behind the screen, making the experience all the more terrifying, since the workings of the lantern could not be seen. All the audience could see were lightning, floating ghosts and skeletons that would approach the audience and transform with the haunting sound effects (Barber 77). These intricate visual illusions and transformations of ghosts and skeletons were made possible through Robertson’s subtle adjustment of light and distance from the screen. To produce a small image, he would position the lantern very close to the screen, and gradually move back to make it larger. The fantascope also had an adjustable shutter mechanism that controlled the amount of light passing through a given slide. Robertson also used mechanical slides that gave the images a greater “sense of motion” (Barber 77). In addition to these techniques, Robertson or one of his assistants would also speak to give voice to some of the ghosts. Several other lanternists imitated Robertson’s idea of the “Fantasmagorie,” but no one had quite the cinematic impact of his shows. Though imitators did not reach the same level of Robertson’s show, they did explore similar themes of “phantoms,” “death,” or the “absent” (Barber 78). For example, Paul de Philipsthal’s playbill for one of his shows in London in 1801 read, “This SPECTROLOGY, which professes to expose the Practices of artful Impostors and pretended Exorcists, and to open the Eyes of those who still foster an absurd Belief in Ghosts or Disembodied Spirits” (78).

Playbill for Paul de Philipsthal's Phantasmagoria in 1802 in London.

In 1803, these shows, now dubbed Phantasmagoria, hit the United States as several different imitators and former assistants of Robertson began touring across the world to perform. Many utilized a similar playbill to Philipsthal’s, which drew greatly from Robertson’s speech at the very first Fantasmagorie. The Phantasmagoria was a smash and took the country by storm from 1803 to 1839. Some notable showmen were Jack Bologna, who performed in the first Phantasmagoria in the United States in New York; William Bates, a former comedian, who featured images of Hamlet and Egyptian idols; and Martin Aubee, one of Robertson’s former assistants (Barber 80). According to scholar X. Theodore Barber, the Phantasmagoria fit “the Romantic Spirit” of the times and “expressed an underlying mood of fear and uncertainty of a nation growing rapidly” (78). It also appealed to “people’s anxieties about death and the afterlife” (78). Though previous users of lanterns made this same religious appeal to deceive people into believing in spirits, the America Phantasmagoria practice define itself in the name of technique and rationality, appealing to the growing American interest in science (78). The Phantasmagoria was hugely popular in the United States, but by the 1830s, audiences were growing tired due to over saturation. Even the most famous and renowned Phantasmagoria showman, Eugene Robertson (Entienne Robertson’s son), struggled to move audiences in the 1830s with arguably the most remarkable Phantasmagoria, which featured captivating images inspired by English author, Edward Young’s The complaint: or Night Toughts such as Young carrying his daughter’s body in a cemetery at night and entering an empty tomb in which a skeleton refused to give up its space (Barber 82). During this show in 1834, he even went against his father’s presentations and tried to convince the entire audience that the show was no more than “optical illusions” (82). Then in 1839, he even changed the name of his show to a Phantascope presentation to make his audience think they were seeing something new (83).

Late 19th Century: Development of Motion Pictures and Subsequent Death of the Magic Lantern

Phenakistoscope Disc

Around on the same time of the Phantasmagoria's fading popularity in the 1830s, the development of motion pictures was underway. In 1824, Peter Mark Roget read a paper to the Royal Society of London discussing the “persistence of vision” (Robinson 7). Roget’s studies illuminated the method by which the brain absorbs “visual impressions” for small time periods after they have been moved or changed its place. Roget came to this realization after seeing “curious illusions” while watching moving spoked wheels through a series of vertical bars (Robinson 7). A few years later, on December 10, 1830, English chemist and physicist, Michael Faraday, presented an odd discovery in a paper to the Royal Institution called "On a Peculiar Class of Optical Deception" (Robinson 8). After studying the movements of toothed mill wheels, Faraday made a device that had two toothed wheels rotating in opposite directions on the same axis. Through adjusting the speed of the wheels, and looking at one of the wheels through the teeth of the other, the wheel appeared to be still or moving very slowly to the viewer (Robinson 8).

This discovery provided the foundations for moving pictures, as others began more intensive studies after Faraday's discovery. Belgian physicist and artist, Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau took the principles of Roget and Faraday's idea and made the two revolving wheels into a toy called the Phenakistiscope (later eventually called the Fantascope). Plateau put a successive series of drawings of a figure in action at the edge of the disk, between the slots of the wheel. When these were viewed in the mirror, the figure appeared still like Faraday's discovery, but the series of drawings made the figure appear to be moving, hence creating the first cartoon (Robinson 8). A year later in 1833, Englishman, W.G. Horner described the first version of a zoetrope called the “Daedaleum” (Liesgang 27). The zoetrope simplified the Phenakistiscope, removing the mirror, allowing several viewers to look at the image simultaneously (Robinson 9). Though the first developments of the zoetrope occurred at this time, the device would not be patented until 1867 by Milton Bradley (Liesgang 28).

Roughly ten years later in 1843, the technology of the zoetrope and phenakistiscope would be combined. T.W. Naylor devised a machine in which painted images like those of a phenakistiscope would be placed on a glass disc and would revolve between the condenser and lens of a magic lantern. In front of the lens, an opaque disc with apertures for each image revolved at the same speed as the disc with the images. Naylor published his plan in various German scientific papers (Robinson 10).

Creating Projection: Lenses and Condensers

Magic Lantern Diagram

The magic lantern utilizes artificial light to project transparent slides and images onto a screen or wall. The projected image usually has a diameter that is thirty to eighty times larger than the transparent slide and an area one thousand to six thousand (Barnes 5). To achieve this magnification, the magic lantern contains a combination of several different concave and convex lenses. Most commonly used is the Petzval lens, which was used for photographer portraits.

The petzval lens contains four lenses:

-Double-convex lens and plano-concave lens in the front. One side of the double-convex lens is fitted and cemented to the plano-concave lens.

-double-convex lens and concavo-convex lens in the back, moderately separate from the front combination of lenses.

The combination of these lenses makes the projection better defined and flat on the screen or wall (Barnes 6). Though this lens combination is adequate for most lanterns, higher quality lanterns contain additional lenses with varying foci, which can be adjusted according to how the operator would like the projection to appear. In addition to these lenses, the magic lantern usually contains a compound condenser formed of two plano-convex lenses, which are mounted close together in a metal cell, with the flat sides of the lenses facing out. The condenser allows the magic lantern to have a short focus and enhances the quality of the projection.


Barber, X. Theodore. "Phantasmagorical Wonders: The Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America." Film History. Vol 2. 3. Indiana University Press, 1989. Print.

Barnes, John. Servants of Light: The Book of the Lantern. London: The Magic Lantern Society, 1997. 4-46. Print.

Liesegang, Franz Paul. Dates and Sources: A History of the art of projection and to cinematography. London: The Magic Lantern Society, 1986. Print.

Robinson, David. From Peepshow to Palace: the Birth of American Film. Chichester, West Sussex, NY: Columbia University Press, 1995. Print.

Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. Print.