Thursday, 19 September 2013

Science or Magic? The Optical Lantern

Over the past year, myself and colleague Kiara White have been researching and documenting the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine's slide and optical lantern collections, also known as magic lanterns. While not directly related to SF, the application of an early form of scientific technology to create effects that were considered magical is another example of the crossover between science and fiction, common in the 19th and early 20th centuries (see Futures Past, P. 5).

The historical development of these instruments dates back to at least the 17th century, with the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens often being cited as a key figure in their invention. The peak of production was during the second-half of the 19th century. Magic lantern shows provided a popular form of entertainment in both public and domestic settings. Combining slide projection with live narration, music and other special effects, lanternists delivered highly successful entertainment spectacles, including phantasmagoria (gathering of ghosts) shows. Slides could have moving parts, and the use of two lanterns in conjunction with pairs of slides could produce ‘dissolving’ (transforming) images. In the days before moving pictures, it was this ability to produce projection effects that appeared miraculous to audiences and gave lanterns their 'magic' moniker. As Marina Warner writes in her book, Phantasmagoria:

Magic lantern images reveal an instrinsic unexamined equivalence between the technology of illusion and supernatural phenomena: Kircher projected souls in hell, leering devils, the resurrection of Christ, and other products of imagination, not observation.
The mention of Kircher is a reference to the 17th century German priest Athanasius Kircher, another figure credited in the development of the magic lantern. The lanterns in the Museum’s collection are recent by comparison, dating from the early 20th century, and were once used for teaching. It was thought that using visual aids would improve memory retention in students, and lanterns and slides provided a convenient way of reproducing images and displaying them to a large audience.

More interesting still, a short article in the Review of Reviews (1890) reveals that Leeds may have been quite pioneering in its uptake of the magic lantern for use in lectures. The article, entitled ‘How to Utilise the Magic Lantern; Some Valuable Hints for Teachers’, cites ‘The Optical Lantern as an Aid to Teaching’ by C.H. Bothamley, which gives details about the use of lanterns in classrooms at the Yorkshire College, now the University of Leeds. Bothamley refers to Professor Miall (then Professor of Biology), who promoted the use of the magic lantern for teaching students, and was able to demonstrate its successful use even in day-lit rooms. According to this article, “in the Yorkshire College almost every department has its lantern”, used to illustrate lectures on a range of “widely different subjects”. The educational slides in the Museum’s collection are representative of this variety, covering a huge range of topics, including the sciences, engineering, history, art, architecture, industries, geography and travel.

This post is adapted from an excerpt of the 'magic lantern and slides object history files' by Kiara White and Liz Stainforth.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Guardian's 'Fiction in 2043'

As a special feature for the Edinburgh World Writers' Conference, author Ewan Morrison takes a Wellsian trip through time - to the year 2043 - to report back on what he's seen of the future of fiction. You can read his satirical correspondence on the Guardian website, published in two parts. The first part, 'The War Years', pictures a world in which books have morphed into 'titles' to accomodate the diversity of reading formats, and a reluctance to publish new authors has led to an explosion of spin-offs, prequels and sequels, producing franchise hybrids such as 'Shades of Hermione - a pornographic Potter serial, and The Twilight Code - in which vampires save the Catholic church'. The second, 'Peace after the Digital Revolution', describes the post-revolution environment, the international commitment to rediscovering the art of fiction and the intervention of China, the new world superpower.

Personally though, and at risk of sounding like one of the 'useful idiots' sent up by Morrison, while his serialisation spells out a dystopian fate for fiction in the wake of the digital revolution, I'd be reluctant to lay the blame on the proliferation of fan-fiction, file-sharing and community-based Wiki-texts. I think perhaps these types of ventures could be compared to the boom in pulp publishing in the 20s or the popularisation of exploitation cinema in the 60s and 70s, forms that have since gained a measure of critical acclaim. Besides which, The Twilight Code sounds like a thrilling read...