Lighting Up The Ghosts Of The Past!


Image Source/Wikimedia Commons

In the history of image projection systems, the first known invented device is the Magic Lantern. It was used extensively way back in the 18th and 19th century and is assumed to have been invented by the Dutch physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens. It is mentioned that his father wanted a lantern developed for him so that he could frighten his friends. Huygens is deemed to have possessed a lantern as early as November 1659.

However, the name magic lantern was not yet coined. Thomas Walgensten was the first person to use the term Lanterna Magica. Walgensten traveled along with the lantern as he understood that this device could be used to gain economic benefits as it held a lot of artistic possibilities with its technique.

It was certain that the knowledge of the magic lantern was spreading like wildfire due to the opening of trades and routes. By only the year 1663, the London optician John Reeves started producing and selling lanterns. By the turn of the century, various people had already aided the development of the lantern. A lot of aspects such as lenses, mirrors and light sources improved over time.

Christiaen Huygens II (1629-1695), by Caspar Netscher

Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), by Caspar Netscher Image Source/Wikimedia Commons

From Dim To Dazzling Light
During the early projections of the magic lantern, the light sources were very dim. Plain candles were used which created a dreamy effect but the images could not be produced for larger audiences. By the 1790s, Argaland lamps were built using the combination of oil and candle wick. The produced light turned brighter and audiences started increasing.

As the time progressed to the 1820s, limelight could be produced. Limelight could light up much larger section of the lantern slides using a combination of quicklime and oxyhydrogen flame. Towards the 1860s, the process further improved to another level with the powerful “arc effect” created from the light of the arc lamp.


A visual illustration of the Argaland lamp along with the magic lantern projecting slides. The combination the candle wick and oil can be seen. Image Source/Wikimedia Commons

Summoning The Ghosts
The Gothic novel Castle of Otranto, written by Horace Walpole, had released in the year 1764. How is this relevant to magic lantern? We have to understand that this novel started off a literary genre- Gothic literature. Seeing this as an opportunity, magic lantern was used as a device to create illusions and trick the audiences.

Johann Georgöpfter started using the Magic Lantern for séances. Séances would be pretentious ceremonies where the illusionists would pretend that they are communicating with the dead. They would use the lantern to project horrid imagery. Skeletons, demons, apparitions and ghosts were summoned out of thin air as people actually started believing that the images were real. Georgöpfter also put his landmark technique into use by transforming ghostly images into smoke.


A woman carrying a magic lantern on her back. Image Source/Wikimedia Commons

Run, Phily! Run! Caught?
Paul Philidor was a popular entertainment séance illusionist who redefined Shröpfter’s techniques, and showcased them to larger audiences. With the advent of the Argaland lamp, it was easier for him to cater to larger masses. He started off his performances in the city of Berlin but soon had to depart to Vienna. This was because the director of one of the city’s theatre owner named Joseph Pinneti threatened to expose his trickery and fraudulent use of séances.

His shows were successful for a year in Vienna but he felt the need to change his premises again and so he shifted to Paris. He smartly understood that the French were open to the idea of seeing their heroes come back to life. He embarked on the idea of the French Revolution and made the audiences would see projections of their dead revolutionaries on screen.

George Danton, who was a chief force in overthrowing the French monarchy, and Miximillen Robespierre, who supported the equality of rights and abolition of slavery, along with other influential figures of the French Revolution were brought back to life.

However, the audience did not quite enjoy his interpretations. Philidor portrayed these revolutionaries as devils in his shows. What made matters worse for Philidor is that he projected Louis XVI (the overthrown King) ascending into heaven in one of his magic lantern slides. This led to his arrest. He later claimed that it was a mistake from one his assistants.


An illustrated phantasmagoria scene. Image Source/Wikimedia Commons

The Uprising Of Phantasmagoria
Etienne-Gaspard Robert was a Belgian inventor, a balloonist along with being a stage magician who adopted his stage name as Robertson. Robertson combined his knowledge of physics and optics to create stage illusions. These stage illusions created a genre called phantasmagoria which became a success with the masses.

Robertson’s first show was performed at Pavillon de l’Echiquier in January 1798. The show startled people to such an extent that the men in the audience took out their swords and the woman covered the eyes of their babies. The audience was screaming in anguish. The show had to be shut down in Paris due to the terror of the people. Robertson moved to Bordeaux and then moved back again to Paris and reworked on his techniques.

Robertson enhanced his shows by using audio effects that would startle the audience. He used trompe-l’œil effects giving an illusion that the objects were three-dimensional. Robertson also tricked the audience using a mixture of sulphuric acid and aqua fortis to create his ghostly apparitions during his monologues. Convent des Capucines, which was a crumbling structure in Paris, became his stage for four years.

Robertson spread the genre of phantasmagoria to the lands of Russia, Spain and the United States of America.


A visual illustration of Robertson’s Phantasmagoria show at Capuchine Chapel, Rue des Champs, Paris in 1797 Image Source/Wikimedia Commons

The Death Of The Lantern
The usage of the lantern decreased as time as more inventions took place. Cinema was introduced as an art form by the end of the 19th century. Magic Lantern is however continued to be used by magicians and the source of the knowledge of moving images is attributed to this device, which was known to conjure ghosts at one point of time.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: better photography, Magic Lantern, dreamy, Paris, trompe-l'œil, Pavillon de l'Echiquier, Robertson, Etienne-Gaspard Robert, balloonist, aqua fortis, sulphuric acid, Convent des Capucines, Paul Philidor, Louis XVI, George Danton, Miximillen Robespierre, Horace Walpole, Gothic literature, Skeletons, demons, apparitions, ghosts, Johann Georgöpfter, Thomas Walgensten, Christiaan Huygens, optician, John Reeve, limelight, quicklime, oxyhydrogen flame, arch effect, oil, candle wick, image projection, Lanterna Magica