Eric Faden


According to Charles Musser, Huygens had two key innovations for his magic lantern:

1. Images painted on glass instead of etchings on mirrors.

2. An artificial light source was used instead of the reflection of sunlight. (20)

Glass slides (often more than one) with hand drawn images are the standard aesthetic for these slides. They are then usually mounted in rectangular wooden frames approx. 4 x 7 inches with a 3 inch circular opening for the image. (Musser 30) The various mechanisms attached to the images are described in the Object Narrative section.

Type of Object


Date of Film


Date of Creation



Christiaan Huygens is generally considered the “official” inventor of the magic lantern. Though Huygens is credited with the invention of the magic lantern, Thomas Walgensten was the first to use the lanterns as a commercial product in the 1660s. By 1670, he was giving exhibitions for royal courts throughout Europe (Musser 20)

Known Origins

In general, the magic lantern began in Europe (since Huygens is the unofficial-official inventor, the Netherlands may be the safest bet). By the eighteenth-century, however, the magic lantern was “openly displayed” for public events by traveling lanternists in public venues.

Object Narrative

By the nineteenth century, magic lantern slides had to compete with the whirligig of inventions that were vying for commercial success. In particular, the 1851 invention of the stereopticon–together with its lanternesque display of the relatively new screen practice of photography–forced lanternists to update their selection of slides. In order to compete with the realism of the photograph, mid-nineteenth century slides employed various mechanisms to their slides in order to achieve the singular effect ofMOVEMENT (Musser 42-3). Such mechanisms included:

Rack-and-pinion: A toothed, circular rack coupled to a cogwheel that is rotated by a handle on the side of the slide. The effect is a continuous, circular movement.

Lever: Moved up and down to change the one slide’s relationship with another.

Dioramic Slides: L.J. Marcy describes dioramic slides in the Priced Catalogue of Sciopticon Apparatus and Magic Lantern Slides (1878) as two glass pieces, “on one of which the scene is painted and the other the figures. The glass containing the figures is moved in a groove, and the figures, vessels, etc., pan across the scene (qtd. in Musser 43).

Panoramic Slides: A 12-14 inch slide of a single image is moved slowly across the slide holder over an embedded background slide (Musser 43).

Slip Slides: An image is quickly altered when the movement of a dark slide across the picture reveals an image at the same time it conceals the previous image. The effect is often “mystical or comical” (Musser 43).


Athanasius Kircher’s “catoptric lamp” of the 1640s used mirrors to reflect sunlight images on darkened walls (Musser 17). The most important innovation of Kircher, as Musser further notes, was not the reflection of sunlight but instead the “demystification” of the apparatus. In other words, Kircher wanted his spectators to ” understand that the show was a catoptric art (involving reflection and optics), not a magical one” (17). Indeed, the discourse of belief and practice of “magic” in the centuries prior to screen practices could also possibly be considered predecessors to the magic lantern.


Being that the magic lantern was an extremely popular form of entertainment for over 250 years, its contemporaries are far and wide. The important ones to mention are perhaps the ones that challenged the magic lantern’s dominance of pre-cinematic screen practices and forced it to evolve its technique and showmanship. Thus, predecessors that deserve mention include:

1798: Etienne-Gaspard Robertson’s stage career with fantasmagorie, in which Robertson used sound effects, smoke, lecture, and other extra-sensory effects to heighten the potential of magic lantern’s image. (Heard 16-18)

1830s: Henry Langdon Childe and others developed “dissolving views,” which, “by the 1840s” were considered “the ultimate manifestation of the lanternist’s art” (Heard 19).

1851: Mentioned earlier, the stereopticon and its use of photography forced lanternists to compete with realistic images by creative devices designed to convey movement.


Further inventions that conveyed moving images include Coleman Sellers 1861 kinematoscope, ”an improvement on the stereoscope that showed movement through a succession of images” (Musser 43), O.B. Brown’s 1870 phasmatrope, a “wheel-like attachment” that “held sixteen photographic slides mounted radially along its outer edge” (Musser 45), as well as inventions like Edward Muybridge’s zoopraxinoscope (1878) and Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope (1888) that take us right to the inventions of cinema. Last but not least, it would seem that these animated magic lantern slides also predate the massively popular form of–animation.

Metadata Author

Jacob Anger, Lindsay Coffee