Lost Knowledge: Magic Lanterns

Craft & Design Photography & Video
Lost Knowledge: Magic Lanterns

Lost Knowledge explores the possible technologies of the future in the forgotten (or marginalized) tech of the past. We look at retro-tech, “lost” technologies, 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 precursor 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.


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]


Combination 35mm Cinematograph and Lantern with hand cranked mechanism.


Polychrome Lampascope Lantern, Aubert, France.


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


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


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


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


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.


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.


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. You can read his interview with Jack here.

6 thoughts on “Lost Knowledge: Magic Lanterns

  1. Adam Flaherty says:

    If you want to see some amazing images shot specifically for lanterns you MUST see the Prokudin-Gorskii negatives on display at the Library of Congress website. The exhibit is called The Empire That Was Russia…


    Here’s a link describing the glass plates and digitizing process…

    The one thing that will strike you is that some of these high resolution color images are over 100 year old!

    The first time around you will stare at them for hours, so be forewarned ;^)

    Here’s one of my favorites…

    And another…

    Look! Real steampunk gear!

    Real steampunks!

    We do truly stand on the shoulders of giants.

    It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen on the Internet to date. Have fun!

  2. Gareth Branwyn says:

    Wow. Those links are great, Adam. Thanks!

    Especially awesome is that Making of page, showing the digichromatography process. Hi-res color images over 100 years old. Amazing!

  3. E. says:

    If you want to see beautiful images of lantern-slides, go to http://www.laternamagica.fr !
    You will see the online collections of the french Cinematheque, whose sublime slides of the Royal Polytechnic, Bamforth’s Life Models or the french slides of Lapierre!
    Unfortunatelmy the website is only in french, but often with the Life Models set, there is a copy of the lanterns reading associated in English ! Have a look here : http://www.laternamagica.fr/notice.php?id=627

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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