Published in October 2005

A Thousand Years of AV? PART 1
By Don Sutherland

A look back at the true beginnings of our industry.

Frontispiece of the catalog of T.H. McAllister Co., Manufacturing Opticians, was updated as their lanterns developed throughout the 1880s and ’90s. This version from 1892 shows a pair of their new lightweight, bellows-equipped, collapsible, portable models projecting a slide of the then-new and celebrated Yosemite to a screen four times the lecturer’s height. Informative and edifying themes were emphasized by theatrical lantern exhibitors, in part to help distance themselves from the “necromancers and witches” associated with the primitive magic lantern. Illuminating the slide in the gate was an oxy-hydrogen burner that mixed the two gases in a flame that burned a cylinder of lime, giving an intense white light. This same illuminant was used to spotlight performers onstage, giving rise to the expression, “in the limelight.” With a fine-grain photograph projected bright and large from an expansive three-inch image on glass, the results, according to its advocates, gave an impression of three-dimensionality. “Stereopticon” entered the language.

We all know the old expression about those not remembering history being doomed to repeat it…We don’t think the “repeat” part will ever happen in our industry, but knowing the history certainly can be helpful. And it can be fun, too. In our series of Industry Pioneers articles by R. David Read (14 published to date), we have concentrated primarily on individuals, and mainly on those involved in audio technology developments. In our 50th Anniversary issue (May 2005), Olaf Hampel, vice president of Liesegang Corp., offered a brief description of the 150-year history of that company’s projection equipment. Here, Don Sutherland, a historian of the best kind, exhibits a sense of awe, with a bit of humor thrown in, to take us way past the 50-year parameter we laid out for our anniversary issue.
We typically consider that the “visual” segment of AV is relatively new compared with its “audio” partner. Yet, in this multiple-part tome, the author, who has studied the audiovisual industry (particularly its “multimedia” aspects), reports on the early aspects of projection that, believe it or not, go as far back as the 1500s and Leonardo da Vinci.
Sutherland offers a lot of insight as to how we got to where we are today, and possibly even why we do what we do! Enjoy.

    Pack ‘em in, sit ‘em down, light up the screen. It’s great to set up the systems that make such things happen, but how long has it all been going on, anyway? For today’s tech, we could count the years on our fingers. But, of course, there was tech before today’s: analog electronics that preceded digital electronics, and before that, optical slides and movies. Someone designed those systems, someone installed them, someone kept them running. Maybe we don’t think of the current industry as part of a tradition or a venerable craft, but boardroom presentations, training productions, educational screenings and special-venue entertainment of many kinds were commonplace fixtures throughout most of the 20th century. By the mid-1920s, for example, the young Paramount Pictures distributed “industrial films” already, in the radical new format of sixteen millimeter. That takes the history of the sound and communications industry back even farther than this publication’s 50 years, which makes it a pretty old industry. But exactly how old, again?

The intention of this pair is unknown. It may have been part of a larger set. Even alone, it offers a number of ideas for what could be written for it. The little bird sings outside the window, and the young girl appears in appreciation. She possibly could be saying, “Ah, the charms of spring,” or she could be saying, “Ah, supper.” More research remains to be done.

A dissolving-view pair showing the perils of drink and/or lust and/or temptation—that it is death!, young man, keep away! Date unknown, probably 1860s. Although the lecture accompanying the pair could go many ways, the visual message was hard to mistake. The picture onscreen amazingly, and with great horror, changed before the audience’s eyes. Some placed the ideal length of a dissolve at 25 seconds, plenty of time to get the chills.

How Old?
    It could be centuries for sure, even millennia, depending on the evidence and how you interpret it. Some records of this tradition are beyond dispute, having been published (and critiqued and debated in print) long ago—surprisingly long ago. There are also logical deductions, reasonable speculations, acceptable assumptions, rational theses, assessments of probabilities, second-guesses, crackpot theories and grasps at straws in the collective recounting of this particular history. But even at its minimum, it’s probably more of a history than most people expected.
    With so much to cover, it’s helpful to break the recounting into two main epochs: the one preceding the invention of the screen effect known as the “dissolve,” and the one following it, up to the present day. Before the invention of the dissolve, all the pieces in the game were on the board, but not all the squares had been drawn in yet.
    The dissolve? That little cross-fade, where one picture blends gradually into its successor on a projection or monitor screen? The transition that content providers call up by clicking buttons in software? This is the device that separates two principal epochs of a history spanning maybe millennia? The dissolve? What do we mean by a dissolve, and where did it come from?

Its Beginnings
    Sometime in the 1840s, Henry Langdon Childe, an exhibitor and painter of lantern slides at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London, placed two magic lanterns side-by-side, “a little inclined toward each other, so as to mix the rays of light proceeding from the lenses of each together” on the screen. By gradually dimming the light from one, simultaneously brightening the other, he accomplished “that confusion of images, in which one view melts as it were into the other.” With that, Childe’s “Dissolving Views” brought a form of visual literacy to the public, in which onscreen effects took on the role of punctuation in the projected narrative.
    What was the year, exactly? That’s our first question of interpretation. Maybe it was 1846, when Childe is said to have perfected the dissolve. Maybe it was 1841 when he reportedly began trying. Or maybe it was really the 1830s, when some accounts describe him already giving dissolving shows, or 1807, the date assigned the invention of the dissolve in Childe’s own obituary.
    Or maybe it wasn’t Childe who invented the dissolve at all, but someone else in Ireland, or an unnamed Italian, or either of two Germans, one named Philipstahl, who introduced the Phantasmagoria to England in 1802.
    This authorship issue was all the rage among the profession of the 1890s, the dissolve having formed the base of an industry for a half-century already. The dissolve would be adopted in technical forms succeeding the magic lantern, including cinema, television, multi-image and PowerPoint presentations. But even in 1892, dissolves had been produced for so long, by so many methods, that the effect’s exact origins were shrouded in history and subject to debate. Even then, people in this business didn’t know how old their industry was.

The ubiquity of the “advertising lantern” is suggested in an 1892 issue of Puck, the leading satirical magazine of the era. The labor agitator badgers his crowd with his rhetorical torrent, while the lanternist comes up with his practical reply. The world of tomorrow was in the making.
Scientific American, a newspaper then, showed the “Skirt Dance” that had grown popular in theaters in the 1880s. The dancer’s wings would catch the beam of the limelights above, perhaps colored differently, while she thrashed about beneath them. At the front of the stage, a lanternist projects an image, possibly a picture, or maybe the kaleidoscopic animations of a Chromatrope. Why don’t we do things like this today—or do we?

How to Make Dissolves
    Although other types of effects are sometimes named “dissolves,” the most common technique consists of cross-fading two images, dimming one down while brightening its successor up, combining the two on the screen almost as a single animated image. By that description, dissolves had been created by gradually covering one lens with one hand while uncovering another lens with the other; by concurrently inserting and removing stoppers from the lens tubes; by simultaneously closing and opening mechanical shutters over the lenses; by alternately lowering and raising the wicks of lamps in oil-fired lanterns; by re-routing fuel between jets in those using gas. There were all kinds of ways to make dissolves, before and during the gaslight era. And soon there would be rheostats for dissolving with those new-fangled electric projectors. Eventually, there would be television switchers with dissolvers, and the canned effects for analog and digital video.
    So, if history teaches us anything in the long saga of the dissolve, it’s not how the effect is made that counts; it’s what the effect looks like. Some digital software creates effects they call dissolves, filling the screen with, say, little squares that then disappear to reveal the subsequent image. Call it what you like, but that’s not the dissolve as it’s been known for 160 years.
    Childe himself used more than one method to create dissolves, all to the delight of the public arriving for an evening’s entertainment at the Royal Polytechnic. The popularity inspired the development of projectors made especially for creating dissolves, equipped with two lamps, optical systems and slide carriers in a single unit. They were known to the trade as biunials. Triunial lanterns or “triples” (three lamps, optical systems and slide gates) were not far behind. They introduced more elaborate special effects of which dissolves were a part, with the third projection system embellishing in all sorts of ways.
    Special effects such as “snow,” created by cranking perforated fabric between spools in the third gate, could “fall” on dissolving scenes projected by the other lenses. Using a fabric with only one perforation, a “moonrise” could be cranked into position over a night scene. A prophet could appear onscreen in one of the many slide sets designed to accompany church services, lightning could ensue, then rainbows, then the heavenly angels could swoop down (or fade up) into the scene.
    With the triunial lantern, an info-tainment industry codified around a particular form of presentation technology, using illuminants and optics to project analog images from glass slides. This was high-tech in Childe’s day, there having been a previous infotainment infrastructure that packed ‘em in without benefit of projectors.

No one was more demonstrative of the commercial prospects for Stereopticons than T.H. McAllister, 49 Nassau Street, New York. Using the “advertising lantern,” a clever impresario could arrange to have the ordinary passerby virtually immersed in images and messages. What a radical thought in the 1890s!
A clever manufacturing optician would develop many markets for the use of his technology. Proposed by McAllister catalogs of the mid-19th century, this update of the camera obscura used the mirror and condenser overhead to project a scene to the surface before the astonished family. Because the scene projected gave nothing more than the landscape just outside, it must have been the high-tech itself that astounded patrons at fairs and the like.

Panorama, Daguerre, the Lanthorn
    There were several forms of public entertainment using “canned media” by the early 19th century. Perhaps the most ubiquitous, known as the Panorama, had sprung-up everywhere following its introduction at Edinburth, Scotland in 1788. They were composed of long painted canvasses—300 feet overall, by some accounts—which ran around the interior of buildings specially built to house them. These venues characteristically were round-ed at the back, the better to immerse the audience in the scenery as the painting wound between its feed and take-up spindles. The panorama seems to represent the first instance of people going to a theater to watch moving pictures.
    By the 1820s, the Frenchman Louis Daguerre had invented the diorama, as an improvement over the panorama. The diorama also employed large canvases, but they were stationary, lighted, and painted front and back, so lighting changes could change the painting. As the lights cross-faded, a view of St. Peter’s might transform from day to night. It was in his search for a better way to paint huge diorama canvasses that, by 1839, Daguerre had discovered—some say invented—photography.
    By the late 1840s, show business in New York included traveling panoramas as well as the large fixed installations, many combining presentation technologies in hybrid forms. The showmen included the best of the age. “About this time,” reported Billboard in a historical review published in 1904, “P.T. Barnum brought over from London a duplicate of the panorama, The Ascent of Mt. Blanc, which Albert Smith had exhibited for so many years at Egyptian Hall, London.
    "Barnum also brought over from Paris Huldon’s diorama, The Obsequies of Napoleon. This was a very realistic production of that great event on canvas, containing moving pictures of soldiers, horses, ships, barges, etc. During the ’50s, there was no end of traveling panoramas illustrating every subject: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Revolutionary War, Life of Christ, The Holy Land, The Napoleonic Wars, Dr. Kane’s Arctic Expedition, panoramas of London, Paris, Tour of Europe….”

Rise of Multimedia
    The custom and context of graphical theater created an environment in which the magic lantern, with all its special effects, could thrive, as a solo instrument and as a member of the band. Eventually, the relative portability of a lantern outfit and its photographic presentations would finish off the more cumbersome and restricted traveling panoramas, the very themes cited being portrayed on glass rather than canvas.
    But for a time, all sorts of techniques fell together in traveling shows. A broadside for an exhibition of “Chemical & Mechanical Dissolving Dioramas,” and another for “Illuminated Chemical Dioramas (In The Style of Daguerre)” are somewhat obscure in their technical references, but they sound like multimedia to us. There’s certainly no doubt that multimedia systems of the age were behind the famous Phantasmagorias that had ‘em fainting in the aisles. Eyewitness descriptions of these performances are scarce, but what little we find seems vivid enough. Robertson’s Phantasmagoria survives in an etching drawn years later, of an audience in the Parisian ex-monastery where it was staged shortly after the Reign of Terror.
    From the front of the room, an enormous horned demon glides toward the audience, through a smoky haze, while overhead hovers a winged skull. The audience is agitated, many rising from their seats, some beseeching the visions, others swooning; a cripple, prostrate beside his crutch, covers his head; a man in a pew buries his face in his hands; another brandishes his cane; another draws his sword.

The Docraw Triple had many features to distinguish it from its competitors, but to our generalized eyes more than a century later, it could be considered representative of triunial, and many biunials, produced from the 1850s through the early 1900s. This style, built almost entirely of mahogany or other handsome woods then fashionable in interior design, fitted with dazzling brasswork in the lenses, the carrying handles, the knobs on the lamphouse doors, the red mica windows in each of the three doors blazing with the intensity of the calcium-light within, was a showpiece in itself and was part of the performance. Switching objects in three slide gates, some including manually operated “slip slides” and other forms of geared images requiring continuous cranking for screen animation, the operator was as busy a performer as an organist at his manifold. He may have drawn as many eyes. The “triple” in this 1892 advertisement appears to have latches between its top projector and the one below, meaning it could be removed for portability when no more than a biunial performance was called for. The disks hanging of the ends of the lenses are lens caps that could be swung around to protect the lens, or manufacture a fade-out in a pinch.

    Robertson’s crew was behind a rear-projection screen, which must have appeared as a plain wall when the audience first entered. As such, it disappeared when the house darkened, and fearsome apparitions seemed to emerge from its direction. Meanwhile, columns of smoke from braziers surrounding the audience gave sufficient opacity to hold a projection of something that, if not clearly discernable, offered much to excite the imagination.
    Philipstahl’s Phantasmagoria followed Robertson’s, staged in the early 1800s in a more conventional theatrical environment, according to a recollection published in 1893: “Professor Philipstahl commenced…by appearing on the dimly lighted stage with a small lighted lamp in his hand, saying, ‘Hush de ghost, de ghost,’...he would then put the lamp out and retire. The curtain then quietly rose, and disclosed a mass of clouds, which slowly opened exposing a ghostly figure, which appeared gradually to the audience, it finally retired, some of a horrible character appearing and vanishing in like manner.”
    Rear-projection screens in the Phantasmagorias kept the workings of the performances secret from the audiences. Backstage, a crew hand-holding magic lanterns, pushing them on wheeled carts or wearing them on belts, could approach and retreat from the screen, follow-focusing as the picture enlarged or diminished. It must have been a fantastic choreography to see, but out front the audience had other visions. With no idea that the demons were getting larger on an invisible projection screen, the only conclusion they could make was that the ghouls were getting closer.
    Projecting still images on smoke held a couple of benefits, including obscuring any imperfection of focus and, of course, providing an undulating rendition of the nebulous spirit. Meanwhile, although history anoints Childe with the invention of the dissolve, the projectionists moving about backstage at Robertson’s must have overlapped their images accidentally at least once, producing a de facto dissolve at least once. It’s not recorded whether anyone noticed.
    As long as they were mixing media, why stop with pictures? An 1857 description for making a phantasmagoria recommends using a slide of “the most hideous specter that can be imagined,” projected on smoke rising from an unseen brazier of charcoal, upon which should be sprinkled powdered camphor. Ghosts should smell no less hideous than they look.

Continues in Part 2.

Don Sutherland has worked with film, video, multi-image and the printed word since the late 1960s. From 1982 through 1996, he was closely allied with the AMI (Association for Multi-Image, later Association for Multi-Media International), whose publication, Multi-Images in 1991 carried the original article, “150 Years of Dissolves,” from which this material was developed. In addition to authoring a couple thousand articles on photographic equipment and technique, he has reported on digital photography for Popular Photography magazine. In his “other life,” he is a maritime photographer. His work can be seen at; he can be contacted at

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