2021

The Magic Lantern

Visual media from baroque to modern times

250 years art of projection before film

The galleries

The art of a magic lantern-projection is part of our cultural heritage and a key element of the visual media history. Discover the lost world of the fascinating magic lantern in the galleries.

The Bernd Scholze Collection

covers magic lantern objects from the German-speaking world. The library of images  offer a comprehensive overview of the magic lantern-theme from the mid-18th century to the 1930s. 

Whether the magic lantern served as a toy for children or contributed to popular science education, examples can be found for all aspects.

Further information on the objects is always very welcome. I'm  seeking continously attractive objects to add to the collection.

The history of the magic lantern in Germany

The early 17th century was the golden age for the invention of new optical instruments, such as the telescope and microscope, followed by the magic lantern in the middle of that century. This device was first mentioned in the correspondence of the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in 1659. As an instrument of no scientific use, it seemed that the magic lantern would disappear soon after its invention, but fortunately the lantern survived. Its mysteries attracted much attention and scientific instrument makers in Italy and Germany began its manufacture in the late 1660s. It immediately became a “must have” in every curiosity cabinet, or Wunderkammer.

In the early 18th century, the magic lantern appeared in rural villages, introduced by Savoyards – travelling showmen originally from the Savoy region of France – who along with the more common peep shows also provided entertainment using the magic lantern. In the middle of the 18th century, travelling experimentalists popularized the magic lantern in urban areas. The lantern was not part of their “physical” entertainment (in particular the electricity machine) but one of the scientific instruments they sold. The end of the 18th century saw the beginning of philosophical toys, originating from the Berlin merchant Peter Friedrich Catel as a natural development of the Enlightenment. The first toy magic lanterns, made in Nuremberg, appeared in catalogues from the 1780s onwards. Travelling Jewish opticians, selling spectacles from Bavaria, added the magic lantern to their sales range. It was obviously an attractive product on the market, and sold successfully in the first half of the 19th century, particularly in the countryside.

The end of the 18th century saw an improvement in the light source, which until then had been a tiny oil-lamp. The Argand light was powerful enough to make it possible to put on a show for an audience of a few dozen people. Phantasmagoria shows, invented by a showman named Paul de Philipsthal, later known as Philidor, in the early 1790s in Berlin and Vienna, then conquered Paris and London.  Phantasmagoria or Geistererscheinungen were never as serious a threat to the audiences in Germany as they were in other countries. The Enlightenment philosophers unmasked the first shows of Paul de Philipsthal in Berlin as deception or fraud. From this moment on the authorities watched the showmen warily so that such charlatanry would not be repeated.

It was the light source that remained the critical point which allowed the lantern to spread the knowledge collected using the telescope and microscope. The first step to complete the triumvirate of the instruments started with the invention of a hydro-oxygen light in the 1830s. Hence it was possible to create a show in front of a large audience in a theatre. Commercially attractive for any showman, the hydro-oxygen projection microscope appeared on the market and was used to project natural phenomenon, such as animals not otherwise visible to the human eye.  The shows took place for the first time in London at the end of 1832 (the solar microscope served as an example) and were introduced in Germany by the famous Viennese magician Ludwig Döbler in the autumn of 1835. He projected the knowledge of the microscopists, showing creatures great and small together on the screen.

The second step to finalize the triumvirate followed in the early 1840s. At the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London, two magic lanterns were positioned side by side to project images on the screen which dissolved into each other, thus producing dissolving view shows or so-called Nebelbilder in Germany. Again introduced by Ludwig Döbler, this time in spring 1843 in Vienna, these dissolving views or Nebelbilder were catapulted into the first row of the entertainment business, whether in the big city theatres, in back rooms of a tavern or in small stalls at local fairs. A classless form of entertainment, young and old, workers or nobility, all found pleasure in watching miniature hand-painted pictures blown up to a sheer unbelievable size. Whereas in the first few years images out of context, accompanied by classical music, entertained the spectator, after the German revolution in 1847/48 this world of images turned into popular science, brought to the audience by self-educated lecturers, usually from the working class. The single images turned into themed lectures. The most striking themes in those days were astronomy (for the first time the discoveries made with the telescope became accessible to everybody) and geology (conception of the world), with the lecturer reciting an explanatory text. Beside these two themes, unknown regions of the world were also shown on the screen, whereas, interestingly, political themes were not a subject for such shows. The magic lantern provided a mass form of entertainment which reached hundreds of thousands of people who enjoyed the hand-painted dissolving images on the screen.

The popularity of dissolving view shows opened up the market for the mass production of toy lanterns in the early 1860s in Nuremberg. It was here that thousands were produced and exported to all parts of the world. The many showmen bought their professional lanterns mainly in the workshops of Vienna, Berlin or Hamburg.

But some dark clouds were looming on the horizon. New techniques came into use to show moving images on a screen, and the 200-year-old magic lantern  became outdated. This “new” moving image appeared in 1896, using a carrier material called celluloid film. Dissolving hand painted images on the screen were replaced by continuous running photographic images. The showmen quickly adopted the new technique, as the commercial foundations had already been laid. Hand-painted slides (photographic slides never became popular in public dissolving view shows) opened the mind to creative phantasy and this provided the link to the “new” film, where the narrative of the sequentially moving photographic pictures set the imagination free.

Enjoy your journey back in time through the slides, magic lanterns and related material. May the images bring back the fascination of a bygone age!

Bernd Scholze

Lecturers

Friedrich August Böttcher

Popular sciences

 

  Folk art

Moving images


Media history