The magic lantern: witchcraft & cinema in 17th century

Today very few must know something about the academic debate regarding the dispute between Athanasius Kircher and Christiaan Huygens in relation to the invention of the magic lantern today. As in the case of Graham Bell and Antonio Meucci in relation to the telephone, it seems that one of them did the work and the other took the credit… But let’s take it from scratch: what on earth is a magic lantern? Well, it’s one of the most surprising and interesting devices in audiovisual history and an archaeological precedent for cinema… Created in the seventeenth century!

The original, cumbersome magic lantern

Even though Chinese shadows and all theatrical performances centered on them were already well known for centuries, the gadget invented by Kircher (or Huygens, as recent discoveries could demonstrate) supposed an authentic revolution in the use of light aimed to the projection of still images. So we find ourselves, in fact, before the first artifact designed to make this possible, thus making it the great-grandfather of cinema and the entire audiovisual show in general. It was actually a rudimentary system which consisted of a luminous focus placed inside a small box and some lenses that allowed to project, on a flat surface, images set in crystals that could be manually exchanged. At the beginning this light bulb was a simple oil lamp, so that in order to let the smoke out the machine had to have a small chimney. What a piece of junk! At first its uses were mainly recreational and aimed for entertaining the social elites, but soon some discovered its potential, also, as a didactic and educational tool among the popular public. That doesn’t mean, however, that the first visionaries who contributed to spread the magic lantern were perceived as magicians or spiritists rather than scientists or technicians. Hence this original name of magic lantern… As a matter of fact, one of its most common applications was, as of the end of the 18th century, the central role in the so-called phantasmagoria, a form of horror theatre played in closed spaces in which, with one or several devices, sinister images were projected on the walls and ceiling (skeletons, bats, demons, etc.) and which, together with a macabre decoration and other visual and sound stimuli, caused real panic among an audience much less used than the current one to the small tricks used by entertainment masters…

Late XVIII Century engraving showing a typical phantasmagoria


¡True origins of illusionism business!