The Magic Lantern; what better name for a device that could mysteriously project images on a wall or screen. The idea of creating such a device fascinated scientists and philosophers for centuries. Although most of the names of those who had an impact on the invention of the magic lantern are unfamiliar, Leonardo DaVinci was interested in the idea of projection, and his drawings of a Bull’s Eye lantern were made nearly two centuries before the magic lantern appeared. The magic lantern was a device first accurately described and exhibited in the 17th century.  The eminent Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens was the first to describe a fully functioning magic lantern, one he made, and wrote about it in a work in 1658. The first show of which there is a written record was given by the Danish mathematician Thomas Walgensten in 1665.  The Jesuit polymath, Athanasius Kircher described a lantern of some sort in the first edition of his book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae in 1646, and in the second edition of the book in 1671 he produced the first illustration of a magic lantern.


Before the end of the century these three were soon joined by others including Johann Christoph Sturm, Johann Zahn, William Molyneux, and Jacques Ozanam in creating clearer description of these devices. By the end of the century the magic lantern as a scientific instrument had come into existence. It wasn’t long before the device left the exclusive domain of scientists, philosophers and the burgeoning intellectual community and was taken over by showmen and conjurers. The illuminants for early lanterns did not allow for large public displays, but this did not stop the lantern from becoming a form of public entertainment. Many of the earliest shows were presented by traveling Savoyards and Galenteen showmen. They traveled around Europe, their magic lanterns often strapped to their backs, bringing the lantern into homes and public squares, to offer shows which would entertain, frighten and amuse. 


By the end of the 18th century an enterprising Belgian showman, Etienne Gaspard Robertson, was to create different type of show. Robertson took the ideas first introduced in Paris by Paul de Philipsthal, who would later take his own show, the Phantasmagoria, and bring it to England, and created his Fantasmagoria show. In these shows, Robertson did not let the poor illuminants become an insurmountable obstacle. Instead he took the small but ingenious step of moving the lantern behind a translucent screen, thereby creating rear projection. By placing his lantern on a moveable trolley and then moving the lantern closer or further from the screen, Robertson was able to make figures appear larger or smaller to his audience. Robertson was not satisfied with making tame figures appear. He also used his interest in the occult to create apparitions and offered to use the lantern to connect his audience with the other world.


The 19th century saw an incredible number of changes to the magic lantern. Improvements in illuminants allowed the lantern to become a more public form of entertainment available to larger audiences. By mid century the use of large halls became much more the norm for the magic lantern show. The most famous venue was probably London’s Royal Polytechnic, which first opened in 1838.


The magic lantern left the streets and shows in private homes were largely replaced by bigger shows in public spaces: halls, auditoriums, schools and churches. With the advent of photography cheaper and cheaper ways were made to produce images and allow greater numbers of slides to be sold. The magic lantern was not only a device for fun and amusement but increasingly became an instrument for education and propaganda.


Use of the magic lantern continued to well into the 20th century but the magic of the lantern was overwhelmed by the cinema, which almost as soon as the Lumiere Brothers first showed a film in 1895 captured the imagination and attention of the world and has kept it.