Published in November 2005

A Thousand Years of AV? PART 2
By Don Sutherland

A look back at the true beginnings of our industry.

It might seem counterintuitive to think that the “video” portion of the audiovisual industry has existed for several centuries. However, in Part 2 of this multiple-part tome, Don Sutherland, a historian of the best kind, continues to trace the origins of projection. Part 1 appeared last month.

The original Mac? This Chicago-made McIntosh followed the tradition of the imposing, decorous, one-piece biunial, which is identified more extensively with British and other European exhibitors. McIntosh was still producing Stereopticons in the early 1900s, and maybe later; some of their single-projector equipment appears to date from the 1920s or ’30s.

    The theatrical career of the magic lantern may have begun in old monasteries, but slides had gone out in European tours a century or more before. In Colonial America, they also began dual roles of “traveling” and “permanent” exhibitions.
    Plying the countryside, the earliest traveling shows of America had to resolve a double-bind created by history and by the culture. Historically, magic-lantern practice had been attributed to necromancers and witches, the raising of devils and of the dead. The phantasmagorias were merely high-budget, theatrically staged versions of the dark arts previously exhibited in precursors of the underground cinema. With that heritage, lanternists ventured across America and its puritanism, where every colony except Virginia and Maryland had passed laws forbidding theatrical performances.
    With the passage of time, the laws relaxed, but the stigma of wickedness continued to follow public performances and it was advisable to emphasize the “edifying,” “moral” content of the presentations. To become acceptable meant a fixation upon temperance and Bible themes, stories of high character rewarded and of sloth and slovenliness avenged. Shame and death befell those who strayed, often with bitter and cruel ironies that carried the innocent to destruction alongside.
    But the lanternist had treats for his audience too, made by wizardry no more magic than a lens and the insights of science. The principles of “polarization” were widely known by the mid-19th century, and added wondrous dazzling tricks to a slide show. The principles of the kaleidoscope were also well known. Kaleidoscopic effects were projected through slides called Chromatropes, using two or more discs of rotating, patterned glass, invented by H.L. Childe himself.
   "Artificial fireworks,” they were called, and the best of them could set an audience into vertigo. Some spinning patterns draw the spectator toward them, others push away, and a sensitive operator could do wonders to people with that.
   "Chinese Chromatropes And Pyra- mic Fires,” were promised on a handbill for “Allen’s Pictorial Concert: Dissolving Views & Great Chemical Mirror Of The Wonders Of Nature And Art.” Included in the “Splendid Collection of Mechanical Paintings, Embracing the wonderful Dissolving Views and Illuminated Dioramas, shown by the aid of the powerful and expensive DRUMMOND LIGHT,” were scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, followed by the Beautiful Dissolving Views themselves: “The Smuggler’s Cave, in the Island of Cuba, in and around which objects are seen moving…A PRAIRIE ON FIRE! in which is distinctly brought to view the unsteady and advancing columns of flames, and towering columns of smoke, the tumultuous and rapid flight of man and beast from the conflagration—all conspiring to form a scene, which, in point of gloomy grandeur, is seldom surpassed….”

Sound familiar? It ought to. Reaching “a child’s mind” through a picture or two, especially using a “pretty or strange picture,” has been part of the marketing and educational infrastructures since the time two standard single lanterns were bolted together, and sold with whatever attachments completed their transformation into full theatrical stereopticons. Presumably the operator was less a part of the show with this kind of rig, typically American and pragmatic: Pictures remain in mind “where a verbal description slips away.” Like video stores today, Riley Brothers offered “tens of thousands of picturesque scenes of travel, landscape, history, adventure, etc. that you can rent at low rates.”

Changing Pictures
    The idea behind the dissolving-views show was that people would come and sit and watch the pictures change. Within that modest pursuit was a range of techniques a good performing lanternist could invoke, to tease and inveigle and tug, startle and change moods. He would have discovered that light and color affect the eye physically for an intended tactile response, can caress or poke accordingly. All it takes is control of brightness and contrast and good timing.
    According to the Brandon Post, Allen’s Pictorial Concert “gave the superior exhibition of [the dissolving views] such an effect as to lead the mind for a moment to imagine itself in some higher sphere. They haunt our memory still.” Stated the New Hampshire Democrat, “We hardly ever expect to be particularly gratified when we attend exhibitions of this nature which occasionally make their way into this vicinity, but Mr. Dexter really is not a humbug.”
    Down in Texas, The Indianola Courier for January 4, 1861, breathlessly described another traveling show and its “brilliant Stereomonoscopic Dissolving Views and Polaroscopic Fire Works,” its highlight “being the unfolding of polarscopic Miracles, by a succession of unfoldings of wheels within wheels, such as Ezekiel’s vision, sparks of which dart off into diamonds, stars, etc.—advances and recedes—folds in and rolls out and over, generally in Hogarth’s line of beauty—the circle—often in other forms, but always in such a magic wonder that the effect on the house is a continuous expression of astonishment.”
    The review concludes, “Go, See, Hear and Wonder!”

The Visual Organ
    Through optical additions to the magic lantern, the contrivance was evolving into a performance machine, a visual counterpart of the organ. The show containing “Ezekiel’s vision,” staged by one Hermann Lungkowitz, ran 23 nights in 1860 at the St. Louis Opera House. And there, the technique of their dissolving-views concealed backstage, they distinguished their art from earlier forms of graphical theater.

Every device in this J.B. Colt Co. advertisement would be recognizable immediately to the showman, exhibitor and theatrical technician of the mid-1890s, though some are definite “whatsits” today. We can tell you that the second one down on the left is an overhead projector, not much different from the type that recently came into popularity for projecting digital graphics panels. The company’s line as presented here is diverse, seriously professional and appears very well-made, bringing its makers into the forefront of the American industry. In time, J.B. Colt became the core of Union Carbide Corp.

    "The…display partakes of the nature of a panorama, but is far more attractive and dazzling in its effects. Instead of a moving canvas made transparent by the light in the rear of the stage, we behold a gigantic disk of light, which is set in the canvas that remains stationary throughout the performance while view after view…is produced upon it in rapid succession, by some mysterious agency in the rear... keeping the mind in a continual trance, and calling up in it a train of delightful emotions.”
    Another review also cited this “mysterious agency in the rear,” as the source of “something new and start- ling…which cannot fail to make a deep impression upon the mind, and keep it in a state of intense rapturous suspense and intense enjoyment.”
    Animated slides were present in the magic lantern’s earliest documented days. The Universal Magazine in March 1763 described lever-action slides of double-glasses, whose ships could rock at sea and whose windmill sails could turn, whose bearded man could doff his hat and then his wig, and whose “young Lady seems to make a courtsy.” (The descriptions match those given almost 30 years earlier by the Dutch mathematician, Petrus van Musschenbroek, whose 1736 book, Beginselen der Naturkunde, described these same moving pictures.)
    Notwithstanding restrictions against public entertainment in colonial America, an advertisement in the Boston Evening Post for December 12, 1743, proudly proclaimed: “To be shown by John Dabney, Mathematical Instrument maker…for the Entertainment of the Curious, the Magic Lanthorn an Optick Machine, which exhibits a great Number of wonderful and surprising Figures, prodigious large, and vivid….”
    The magic lantern evidently was known widely, but not universally. Facing this inconsistency, The Universal Magazine in 1763, groused, “The magic lanthorn deserves so much the more to be known, as the greater part of those who have written on optics have given but a superficial idea of it. Besides, the phenomena it produces are so surprising that they excite the attention of the least curious…”
    To enable the curious to recognize it on sight, the article described the magic lanthorn in detail: “It is a kind of chest, that magnifies to a very great degree the objects which are painted in miniature on a glass, and represents them on the opposite white wall, where there is no other light but that of the chest. This machine is the invention of Kircher.”

So, Who Invented It?
    Before H.L. Childe could place two lanterns side-by-side to create a dissolve, someone had to invent the first one. This is often attributed to Fr. Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit who covered many topics in his 1646 tome, Ars magna lucis et umbrae, including various attributes of projection. His revised edition of 1671 went further, by showing pictures of magic lanterns and painted glass slides.

If you were a stereopticon operator in the days before GE brought good ideas to light, your projection lamp or, more correctly, jet, would look like this. Out of the tip of the curved tube at the right sprang an intense flame composed of oxygen and hydrogen gases mixed together and blown through the horizontal tube below. The flame produced a dazzling white light when burned against a cylinder of lime, or calcium as sometimes called, inserted into the tubular holder just to the left of the flame. Extending from the base of the holder is a geared handle, permitting the operator to rotate the lime periodically as the oxy-hydrogen fire burned it down. The gases entered the fixture from tanks or bags connected by rubber hoses attached to the nipples at the left of the device. The operator of a triunial had three of these to look after, along with everything else, for which he may have sometimes had an assistant for support.

    But an earlier drawing of a nearly complete magic lantern, by Thomas Walgenstein, appeared in 1665 and the device reportedly was exhibited that year in Lyons, while descriptions of a lantern constructed by Christiaan Huygens (for whom the recent probe of Saturn’s moons was named) are dated 1659. Walgenstein’s and Huy- gens’ activities fall between Kircher’s two dates of record. So, although Kircher’s role in developing optical projection is indisputable, it’s evident that he wasn’t alone nor even the first.
    Walgenstein evidently sold magic lanterns to the public in 1674, by which time the stimulus of Kircher’s illustrated volume reportedly had made oil and candle-powered projectors all the rage of Rome, where Kircher worked. Possibly this represents the very first manifestation of the “home-theater” market.
    Optics were among the leading-edge technologies of the time, an intellectual frontier as people explored lenses in action. It was growing important to extend the reach of human vision and intervention, by the magnifying capacities of combinations of glass. Optical projection was studied by a lot of deep thinkers, but their hurdle was less the optics than illuminants. Oil lamps and candles cast a soft glow even through condensers, and brighter lamps were locked-up in the unforeseeable future of the 19th century.
    That didn’t stop a lot of people from being interested. John Baptist Porta wrote about mirror-projection in his Natural Magick more than half a century before Kircher. Even Leonardo da Vinci in the 1500s sketched a lamp with a condenser lens. This is less the first projector than the first focusing lamp, but as such it is a first step to the projector. (The first description of a magic lantern actually including a condenser, by the way, was published in 1692, 20 years after Kircher, by the Irishman William Molyneux. The Molyneux lantern was advertised for sale that year.)
    Projection also happens without machinery, and it is hard to imagine that no one before Leonardo noticed. There were shadows, and reflections from bright surfaces, even mirages, all of which are optical projections with no tech whatsoever. The sun shining through a leaf projects its likeness on the ground. You don’t have to build something to project an image.
    Once there were cathedrals with stained-glass windows (Brionde, AD 525), lots of people must have seen projected images, as saints depicted in the glass were cast around the interior by the sun. Slide projection wasn’t something to invent, but discover. How far back? Chaucer describes the “jogelours, magyciens, trageteours, phetonysses, charmeresses, old witches, and sorceresses,” he knew, some of whom performed amazing illusions that could have been made by a number of methods, but most easily by optical projection.
    Because projection is so easy to discover, some have supposed that ancient miracles were less divine events than mere mortal cunning. “It is quite probable that the Biblical ‘Writing on the Wall’ was accomplished [by projection],” declared a Chas. Beseler Co. catalog of the 1890s, “and recent excavations in those portions of the earth where present civilization had its start have revealed glass very much in the form of our present simpler lense [sic] system.” By about 5000 BC, the Chinese were known to be using mirrors for projecting images, and there were contacts between Asia and the Middle East of the era.
    Given its ability to sway an unsophisticated public with depictions of “miracles,” the projected image was a potent force that may have been guarded by priests and the intelligentsia under some pretext such as “national security,” given its ability to overwhelm, incite, awe and shock its viewer. Such a potent force would not have been documented under the circumstances, but the possibility remains that people were setting up equipment and environments for screenings 7000 years ago.

The Lantern in Literature
    Notwithstanding any stealth imposed previously, writers from the time of Kircher onward have made the lantern seem utterly familiar, placed square among the routine props of life across the centuries.
   "Comes by agreement Mr. Reeves,” states Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for August 19, 1666. “He did also bring a lanthorn with pictures in glasse, to make strange things to appear on a wall, very pretty.”
   "Wilhelm, what is the world to our hearts without love?” asked the protagonist in Goethe’s mid-1700s The Sufferings of Young Werther. “A magic lantern without light. But as soon as you put the little lamp inside, the most colorful pictures shine on your white screen. And even if it were no more than that, no more than fleeting phantoms, it always makes us happy to stand before them like naive boys and delight in these marvelous sights.”
    A century later, describing life aboard a transatlantic steamship in Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain recounts, “Several times the photographer of the expedition brought out his transparent pictures and gave us a handsome magic-lantern exhibition. His views were nearly all of foreign scenes, but there were one or two home pictures among them. He advertised that he would ‘open his performance in the after cabin at “two bells” (9:00pm) and show the passengers where they shall eventually arrive’—which was all very well, but by a funny accident the first picture that flamed out upon the canvas was a view of Greenwood Cemetery!”
    And Marcel Proust, in his Remembrance of Things Past, recounts that “Someone had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern…it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted, as on a shifting and transitory window. And, indeed, I found plenty of charm in these bright projections...”

Various flamatory substances were more openly available in the mid-19th century than they are today, and most, including the household gas that illuminated the cities of the “gaslight era,” were used for projecting pictures. Acetelyne certainly burns, too, as welders can attest, and here Queen & Co. is proposing your use of it for your home slide show. Queen manufactured an extensive line of high-end lanterns, “prosumer” models for home users who wanted quality. Queen’s machines looked just like the one in this picture, with a sheet-metal lamp housing, brass optical elements and varnished wood supports for the various components.

Queen & Co. was not all that partisan about illuminants, and would happily sell whatever supported the sale of lanterns and slides. The text for their New Automatic Lamp is sparse on technical details, but there are broad implications that the device was an electric arc lamp. The lanternist of the 1890s commanded all sorts of high-tech talk, and understood how important it was to “project the full crater.” It’s not hard to imagine the appeal of finding that “The adjustments are all outside.”

Stronger Illuminants, Bigger Risks
    After two centuries of the vicissitudes of candles and weak oil lamps, illuminants developed rapidly with 19th-century technology. Paraffin, sperm oil and olive oil in the 1870s were surpassed by kerosene, household gas and acetylene by the 1890s.
    Of all the open-flame illuminants, the oxy-hydrogen limelight, developed early in the century as a military signal by Lt. Thomas Drummond, proved the most potent. By burning the gases against a cylinder of lime, a flame of intense brightness and whiteness was produced. Oxygen-hydrogen mixtures gave results bright enough to project an image 25 feet in diameter.
    How to get oxygen and hydrogen to the venue? With great care. Tanks of the gases were easy enough to store in permanent installations and theaters, but for road shows, gas bags proved more portable. Gases in any form were relatively problematic, however, as a British trade journal, The Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger, periodically noted. In April 1899, for example:
   "On the 16th ult. the audience were waiting for the commencement of a lecture…several persons assisted to erect the screen, which occasionally came in contact with the gas [lighting] fixtures. Meantime pianoforte solos filled up the wait…All would have then gone well, but unfortunately, after a few pictures had been projected, the rubber tubing was blown off the cylinder connections and the cylinder emptied its contents into the atmos- phere…An interesting lecture was given without the lantern, and with some good instrumental and vocal music the audience enjoyed them elves.”
    The occasional requirement to improvise quick fixes might seem like the fabric of business today, but was quite clearly woven-in by the late 19th century. The glitches and bugs in those presentations were something to watch out for, considering the nature of hydrogen gas. In December 1899, the Optical Magic Lantern Journal reported, “…a lantern lecture at Tiverton…came to a sudden termination just as it was commencing, owing to an explosion. In the stampede which followed, three ladies were slightly injured. The regulator was well burned, and pieces of it were picked up in various parts of the hall, some as far as 20 yards off.”
    Acetylene also had its hazards, as the magazine reported in November of that year: “On the 7th ult. Mr. Alexander…was examining a part of an acetylene generating apparatus, when a violent explosion occurred fracturing his skull, from which injuries he died in a few hours. The supposed cause was the dropping of a hot cigarette ash into a chamber containing a mixture of acetylene and air.”
    This fatality occurred despite a precautionary note in January that year: “We have from time to time warned users of acetylene gas against opening an exhausted generator in the presence of a flame…We have unfortunately to chronicle the death of Mr. Burlingham, of King Lynn, a young man of 32, who, in the course of some experiments with this gas, was instantly killed by an explosion, and a boy who was standing near was rendered unconscious. Such accidents although very sad, in no way prove that acetylene is any more dangerous than ordinary house gas….”

to be continued...

Read Part 3 of this series in the December issue of Sound & Communications and, in January, on this website.

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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