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Jack Judson in his restoration workshop with a project-in-process, a rare French science projector from the 1800s.

The magic lantern was the earliest example of how projection could be used to tell stories. From as early as the 1500s, the large-scale images projected by the magic lantern fascinated people and could make them laugh or cringe while sitting together in a dark room. The magic lantern is the first technology of the entertainment industry, as well as the predecessor to the more mundane PowerPoint presentation.

Collecting magic lanterns became an obsession for Jack Judson late in life. After retiring from business he began collecting hundreds of magic lanterns, mainly from the 19th century. He not only had to learn how to build and organize his wonderful collection of magic lanterns and research their history; he had to learn how to create his own museum to preserve the treasures he’s gathered.

The Magic Lantern Castle Museum is hidden away in a stretch of strip malls in San Antonio, Texas. The only flourish on the exterior of its nondescript building, which was once a disco, are the castellations. Inside, Judson has transformed the space into a private den where he can share his remarkable collection, alongside a workshop where he keeps the magic lanterns in working condition.

I took a tour of the museum and then sat down with Judson to explore the rich history of this fascinating technology.

Dale Dougherty: The first thing we see in your museum is a statue of a lanternist.

Jack Judson: The lanternist was a traveling showman who carried a magic lantern on his back, and out front he’s carrying a hurdy-gurdy, and he would be walking, probably, into a town square somewhere in France, where we presume a lot of it began.

DD: What is a hurdy-gurdy?

JJ: The hurdy-gurdy is really a violin in a box, but instead of being stroked by a bow, it is stroked by a wheel that is turned with an outside crank. On the front of the box is a set of keys that can change the pitch and tone, to play music with it. He would play the hurdy-gurdy to attract attention. He might be invited into a home, or a church, where he would slide pictures painted on glass through this machine that was lit by a little oil lamp. It was basically a tin box with a lens at the front.

DD: The lanternist was essentially a storyteller who had images to accompany his story.

JJ: The magic lantern was very scary to people who had no education whatsoever. Frequently, they did these shows in total darkness, like in a crypt, which was very spooky, and they showed pictures of skeletons and devils. It just scared everybody like crazy. They might also do the projection from behind the screen. They would have a light-colored cloth, which they wet to make it more translucent. The image could be small, or grow larger, and this was quite alarming to some people. They thought it was magic.

DD: The light of an oil lamp flickers. And it’s a yellowish light.

JJ: It’s a terrible light. The next evolution, of course, was trying to improve the light — the amount of light — by adding, instead of one little wick, a bigger wick or two wicks, or three wicks, or four wicks. They were able to grind better lenses. Then, of course, they were using fire — that was about as far as you could go with burning oil or some kind of a liquid, burning agent.

DD: Some lanterns used a pair of lenses.

JJ: They had a condenser lens, which is right at the front of the box with the light in it. That was either a single or double plano-convex large lens, which acted to focus the light from the source into a coherent path. It would pass directly through the image area on the slide, and then meet the projection lens out front, which you use to focus the image. That’s the normal configuration. That exists even to this day in the latest slide projector.

DD: Let’s talk about the slides. The slides are made of glass inside a wooden frame.

JJ: Exactly. A lot of them in the early days were simply freehand paintings on glass. They’re miniature paintings, but, of course, made to blow up to incredible sizes at times. Some of them would be 3 inches in diameter, some of them even smaller. It was the earliest AV.

DD: That lanternist was the AV man.

JJ: He was it!

DD: Then the slides begin to change because of photography.

JJ: In the late 1830s to 1840, we got photography but no one was thinking of projection. They were making pictures on metal or paper. Fortunately, a pair of brothers from Germany, William and Frederick Langenheim, figured this out. William fought in the Texas Revolution, and Frederick started a photography business in Philadelphia. They are credited with inventing the first black and white photographic lantern slide. They didn’t have color photography.

DD: You showed me examples. The process was to paint a larger picture and take a photograph of it, and then do this transfer process to create a slide, which was then handpainted to add color.

JJ: To handpaint all the details required incredible skill and eyesight, and a lot of technique. They would take characters out of, say, Tennyson’s poems, or Les Misérables, and show the characters in great detail, because they went with published stories that were well known. They could then bring a story to light.

DD: A lot of the language of film editing originates with the magic lantern.

JJ: The first motion of any kind, or any effect, that we now take for granted — whether it’s electronic, or on motion picture film, or digital — was done when they learned that you can move one piece of glass past another piece of glass, and cause things to darken out, or to change. It gives the simulation of motion.

They also learned that they could dissolve — a word we use today — from one image to another by raising the firelight in one lantern, and lowering it in the other one using a very-nearly identical slide. A house might be shown in daylight, and dissolve into an image of the house at night.

DD: Did it require dual projectors?

JJ: You would, generally, have at least two sets of lenses. That way you could dissolve smoothly without interruption of the viewing.

DD: What’s your favorite projection?

JJ: The Ratcatcher slide is legendary. Basically, it was the hit of the show and I use it still. There’s a man recumbent in a big old bed in the 1800s, and he’s got a candle burning on his nightstand, and he’s under the covers. He’s got a long black beard and wears a nightcap. One of the levers on the side of the magic lantern moves a piece of glass up and down, so that his jaw opens and closes as if he was snoring.

Then you have a crank on the other side and as you turn it, coming up from under the bed and up over the covers comes a rat to investigate the man snoring. It gets closer and closer to the man’s mouth. Finally, he swallows the rat. The audience goes nuts.

DD: In your museum are handbills used to promote magic lantern shows. The programs were not just stories, but also lectures — travels in England, for example.

JJ: Yes, and there are many on the evils of drinking. That was a big movement in England, called the Band of Hope, and their motto was, “Water is best.”

A very popular thing was catastrophes — the Youngstown flood, and the Galveston hurricane, and the terrible fire somewhere, not to mention the San Francisco earthquake. As one fellow wrote in his autobiography, people seemed to love to go see horrible stories.

DD: A magic lantern show is a group of people sitting in a room, watching “horrible” images on a wall.

JJ: They also did science lectures. Some of the shows were humorous. Some of them were educational. They used magic lanterns in churches to project hymns.

DD: One focus of your collection is how the secret societies used the magic lantern for initiation ceremonies and to reveal secrets that only the members knew.

JJ: Masons, for instance. They came up with a marvelous device known as the hoodwink. Those to be initiated were fitted with what looked like a set of goggles attached to a leather hood. The goggles had a lever on either side where you could flip open the eyepieces to see, or close them to keep the initiate in the dark. They strapped it around the initiate’s head, and led him into the inner chambers, where he was shown a light-show presentation that told the secret story of the lodge. That device gave rise to the term “being hoodwinked.”

DD: The magic lantern comes to be part of the early film industry starting in the late 1800s. The Edison kinetoscope could project from slides and film.

JJ: You had Edison’s home kinetoscope, and, of course, then the projecting kinetoscope, which was the one that was used by more professional people. You could buy slides for 50 cents apiece. You could not buy films; you had to rent them. Netflix of the day, I guess you might say. There’s nothing new.

DD: Those early films, though, were not very long, were they?

JJ: No, they were very, very short. The earliest ones were 50 feet, which is basically the length of the table where George Eastman could lay out the film — a liquid — and let it solidify, and then roll-cut strips that were 35 millimeters [wide], and so at 16 frames per second, it doesn’t last very long.

At some point, I recall the story where this old man talked to Edison about how to show these films, and he said, “Well, just run them through three times so that they get their money’s worth.”

There was no story. They had no message — no nothing. They were just images of people moving, and, in fact, they were not moving. They were really sequential stills. Films for the Edison home kinetoscope were printed in three tracks on one film width so the film could be run forward, then played again reversing the reel, and then again forward. It was a very unusual thing.

DD: These are hand-cranked machines.

JJ: They’re all hand-cranked. It’s a wonderful, clicking, mechanical sound that we don’t hear anymore.

DD: You have a beautiful collection here.

JJ: Nowhere else in the world can you go and see the complete variations on how magic lanterns were made and what they were used for. It really was AV in every sense of the word, and it developed into motion pictures. Man has been fascinated by projected imagery ever since there were shadows dancing on the walls of a cave.

The Magic Lantern Castle Museum follows the use of magic lanterns up until the first generation of film projectors. Judson decided to stop collecting there, at the advent of cinema.

“Walt Disney began working for the Kansas City Slide Company as an illustrator for magic lantern slides,” Judson adds. “That’s how he got his start. Of course, everybody knows how he went on from there to California where he created cels that would become an animated motion picture. All of this stuff began with the magic lantern.”

» Magic Lantern Castle Museum: magiclanterns.org

A complete video and transcript of this interview are available at makezine.com/16/lantern.