Magic Lantern History

Magic Lantern

Magic Lantern, ca. 1900, United States, Gift of the Harrisburg Consistory, S.P.R.S. 32°, 93.041.1. Photograph by David Bohl.

Several scientists and mathematicians developed projection devices in the 1600s, including Thomas Walgenstein (1622-1701) and Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695). Although Huygens is attributed with inventing the magic lantern, it was Walgenstein, a Dutch mathematician, who coined the term "Magic Lantern" and began conducting lantern demonstrations throughout Europe. In the late 1700s, Etienne-Gaspard Robertson (1763-1837), a Belgian physicist and stage magician, started to “conjure” ghosts for audiences. These shows lay the foundation for the popular late-1700s phantasmagoria lantern shows that featured skeletons, devils, and ghosts. Aside from these entertainment spectacles, the lanterns were also used for science, education and religious instruction by academics and Jesuit priests.

The Tea Tax-Tempest or The Anglo American Revolution

The Tea-Tax Tempest, or The Anglo-American Revolution, 1778, Carl Gottlieb, Guttenberg, Germany, Gift of Charles D. Childs, 77.31. Photograph by David Bohl.

As the lantern became more popular and readily available, traveling lanternists began hosting public performances in taverns and public meeting houses. Lantern use gradually increased for advertising, propaganda and entertainment purposes in the 1700s and 1800s. Different publications, artworks, and popular magazines featured images of lanterns as they became a common form of entertainment. One example includes this 1778 engraving The tea-tax tempest or The Anglo-American revolution by Carl Gottlieb Guttenberg (1743-1790), which illustrates Father Time using a magic lantern to show an allegory of the American Revolution.