Windham Life and Times – February 25, 2016

Magic Lanterns

Magic Lantern Slide of Butterfield's Rock in Windham

Magic Lantern Slide of Butterfield’s Rock in Windham

“Imagine yourself back in the Victorian period, say in 1895, just before the birth of the movies.  Suppose you wanted to go out for an impromptu evening’s entertainment.  What would you do? The chances are you’d go to a magic-lantern show, or, as we Americans often called them, a “stereopticon show.”  Magic lantern shows were the combination of projected images, live narration, and live music that the movies came from.  They were incredibly popular 100 years ago…In 1895, there were between 30,000 and 60,000 lantern showmen in the United States, giving between 75,000 and 150,000 performances a year. That means there would have been several shows a week in your county.” (

“A magic lantern consists of seven functional sections: the lamp, reflector, condensing lens, lens tube, body, base, and smokestack.  The lamp is the sole source of illumination, which often came from burning oil or gas, a burning piece of calcium, or later, electricity.  The reflector reflects the light from the lamp toward the condensing lens, which focuses the light onto the slide being projected.  The lens tube serves to magnify the illuminated slide, so that projected images from 6 to 12 feet wide can be obtained.  The body is often made completely of metal, and houses all of the previous components except the lens tube.  The base lifts the magic lantern above the surface of a table.  This is important because the body will become intensely hot from the illuminating lamp, and the base helps to prevent table burns.  Finally, the smokestack serves to vent the smoke coming from the lamp, so that the smoke doesn’t accumulate inside the lantern and put out the fire.”


“Hand-painted or photographic glass slides are inserted horizontally between the condensing lens and lens tube, through metal runners at top and bottom.  A skilled projectionist can move them quickly, and if the slides contain images of progressive motion, the projected image will appear to move.  Some slides can create complex, constantly moving displays, demonstrating that the magic lantern is not simply a still image projector.”


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