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The Lost Knowledge column explores the possible technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those just slightly off to the side). Every other Wednesday, we look at retro-tech, “lost” technology, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” was also the theme of MAKE Volume 17


Ever since we humans started making shadow puppets in the firelight of our caves, we’ve been fascinated by the power of the projected image. It seems only fitting that, for DIY Movie Making Month, we’d take a look at magic lanterns, some of our first technological baby steps that have delivered us to the age of Avatar.

What is a magic lantern? It’s basically a 17th century pre-cursor to the slide, and then movie, projector. The Magic Lantern Society defines a magic lantern as:

…an appliance by means of which transparencies are projected by artificial light upon a screen with the projected image having a diameter generally from thirty to eighty times greater than that of the transparency or slide, whilst the area of the image may be from one thousand to six thousand times as great.

Magic lanterns grew on the developments of magic shadow shows (i.e. shadow puppets), camera obscura, magic mirrors, and other earlier optics and projection techniques. The period of the magic lantern spanned from the mid-17th century to the late 19th. While there is no clear inventor of the device, Dutch astronomer, mathematician, and physicist, Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), with his lenses designed for use in telescopes, is probably the closest thing to a father of the technology.

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Parts of a common type of Magic Lantern. [From The Magic Lantern Society's website]

Here are some wonderful pictures of different types of magic lanterns, taken from the The Magic Lantern Society’s Magic Lantern Gallery]

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Combination 35mm Cinematograph and Lantern with hand cranked mechanism.

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Polychrome Lampascope Lantern, Aubert, France.

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Stroud & Rendell Science Lantern No. 288. Reynolds and Branson, Leeds. Metal Lamphouse, mahogany section, top mounted adjustable mirror, electric illuminant.

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Precision Micro-Projector No. 1241. Flatters & Garnett Ltd, Manchester. Electric illuminant, liquid condensing chamber, slide stage and two microscopy lenses.

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Biunial Lantern, British. Four side opening doors, two limelight burners, 7 inch. Wrench lenses.

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Robertson’s Phantasmagoria in a sinister disused cloister of an old Capucine chapel in Rue des Champs, Cours des Capucines, Paris. 1797
One of the 18th century applications of the magic lantern was to use it to scare the Dickens out of people by projecting images of devils, demons, and ghosts in smoke-filled halls.

Here are some excellent resources for exploring more about magic lanterns:

The Magic Lantern Society
Extensive history, galley of lanterns and related tech, society publications, and the like. These folks take their antique projections very seriously.

Lanterna Magica
A little online animated show that attempts to recreate

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Derek Greenacre’s Magic Lantern siteA magic lantern “fansite,” with some fascinating images of the tech and some recreations of how the slides would have worked in a lantern show.

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Peep show box from the Richard Balzer Collection.

The Richard Balzer Collection
Gorgeous site dedicated to magic lanterns, optical toys, dioramas, peep shows, and other antique optical, projective, and display technologies.

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Magic Lantern Castle Museum
The Magic Lantern Castle (San Antonio, TX) is the only museum in the world dedicated to the magic lantern.

The First Picture Show, MAKE Volume 16
In this issue of MAKE, Dale wrote about Jack Judson and his Magic Lantern Castle Museum. On the issue’s Web Extras page, you can see the complete video interview Dale conducted with Jack, from which he derived the article. You can buy a back issue of the magazine in the Maker Shed. Subscribers can read the digital version of the article here.

More:

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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