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.

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