Homepage 'de Luikerwaal'

  The miracle of the
magic lantern
'A magic lantern? that's a kind of lamp that Aladdin rubbed when he made a wish, isn't it?'. Young people often look astonished when they hear the words 'magic lantern'. Older people usually know immediately the real meaning of the words. Often the words  may evoke images of a far, romantic past. Only a few of them will remember how their father, on the occasion of a birthday party or perhaps at Christmas, with a ceremonious look on his face took down the apparatus from the attic to give his excited children an unforgettable evening. Without a doubt it was a real miracle that was shown to them: On a simple white sheet father was conjuring up the most curious figures and persons. Dirty Peter for instance, the boy who did not like to wash or Philip the Swinger, who kept on his chair until he fell over backwards, thereby taking the tablecloth with all on it with him. Yes, enjoying yourself was excellent, but besides that it was necessary to learn something from it too. This was not always a very delicate matter. For the bad habit of the little nail-biter a very effective but also very ruthless solution was found: her little fingers were simply chopped off!
The very simple magic lantern Athanasius possibly used.

Now as with many other inventions,
for instance the art of printing, it is not known exactly who invented the magic lantern. The 'Laterna Magica' had already been described in an old writing by a German Jesuit priest and scientist, Athanasius Kircher. The 1646 edition of his 'Ars magna lucis et umbrae (The great art of light and shadow) included the description of a primitive projection system whereby sunlight reflected off a mirror is projected through a lens on a screen. The second edition, published in 1671, included the first drawings of a magic lantern.

There is a persistent anecdote about this erudite priest. It has to be considered highly unlikely but it's a beautiful story after all: The father had thought of a practical application for his invention. While visiting his unfaithful believers in the evening, he hid a simple magic lantern under his cowl. When talking did not help anymore, he switched to other, tougher measures. On the glass of his lantern he had painted a realistic image of the death, which he projected from the outside on the parchment windows of the simple farmhouses. That was really successful and had a marked effect. The next Sunday morning his church was packed to the very roof again.
Athanasius Kircher was certainly not the first to design a magic lantern. By the time he published his first illustrations, the magic lantern had already been described by others, like the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, and was probably in fairly wide use. In Huygens' books we find the first description of a complete, working magic lantern and in 1659 already he constructed a projecting lantern with a three-element lens. For that reason Christiaan Huygens is today considered the most likely inventor of the magic lantern.

However Christiaan was not very proud of his invention. He was ashamed because it appeared that various swindlers were using his instrument to frighten people. His father, who served at the French court of Louis XIV, once ordered a lantern upon the king’s request. Christiaan did not comply with this request because he was afraid that he would ridicule the Huygens family. (Also read: Christiaan Huygens, the true inventor).
More Dutch scientists have paid an important role in the development of the magic lantern. The Professor Willem Jacob van ‘s Gravesande, living in the Dutch town of Leiden, and the instrument-maker Jan van Musschenbroek improved the equipment quite a bit. (Also read: The oldest magic lantern in the world.) At that time four-wick oil lamps came into use, whilst before mostly a candle had been used as source of light. Van 's Gravesande's lantern and slides survive in the Boerhaave Museum, Leiden.
Until the second half of the eighteenth century magic lanterns were mostly used by scientists, but soon various people realised that it was good business and took advantage of it. The Dutch word 'Luikerwalen' (foreigners will probably need a long time to pronounce this word correctly!) stands for people originating from Luik in Wallonia. They were travelling all over the country to give performances at fairs, in pubs etc. The government had forbidden them to carry rat-poison throughout the country while catching rats had been the main activity of these people to make a living before, so they had to find a new source of income. The projector and the accompanying slides they carried on their backs, were built by themselves in most cases.

It is not likely that the misshapen person on the anonymous print from 1720 at the left is representative of the appearance of the luikerwalen. At that time lanternists and also hawkers on the whole were mostly portrayed as caricatures.
After 1800 the performances became more extensive and impressive. The performer had stopped visiting people, they came to him now to attend the performances. Though the lighting had been improved considerably by that time, it remained quite weak, so that the lanternist had to place his lantern at a short distance from the screen. For that reason the lantern was placed behind the screen in most cases. To make the cloth more transparent it was sprayed with water with a brass glass-spray continuously before and during the performance. This kind of spray was generally used by the maid for cleaning the windows! Placing the lantern behind the screen had another advantage: now the public could not see what was happening behind it, and that made it much more exciting and realistic.
Famous became the performances of a Belgian artist named Robertson, born Etienne-Gaspard Robert in 1763. His so-called 'phantasmagorias' (ghosts and phantoms playing the prominent part), were accompanied by a number of spectacular effects. Clouds of smoke, thunder and lightning, rattling chains and other noises shocked the unsuspecting spectators. Later two or more lanterns were coupled and when using them, different images could be faded into each other or merged. Sometimes even as many as eight lanterns at a time were used in the performances.

Robertson claimed that the object of his shows was to rid the spectators of their superstition and fear of ghosts. Relying on the reactions of his audience he did not succeed. On the contrary.
Once a company in London, called Carpenter & Westley, started with a real industry of lanterns and lantern slides in 1820, the magic lantern was brought to the man in the street. The firm maintained exceptional quality of production, under successive managements, during a large part of the 19th century. Carpenter was the first to use manufacturing processes for the multiple production of slides. The company used a method of transferring engraved black outlines on to glass, thus making subsequent hand-colouring easier. Nowadays Carpenter & Westley slides are much sought after, for the dissolving view sets and other hand-painted slides are of the very finest quality.
A real rage in presenting lantern-lectures started. New, much stronger sources of light than formerly available, made it possible to project big, bright images for a large audience and it was also possible to project from a distance behind. The application of limelight meant an enormous improvement of the performance. The intense white light was produced by heating a piece of lime, generally with a flame of combined oxygen and hydrogen gases. Unfortunately many disasters happened due to its use.
Besides its function in the entertainment-world the magic lantern was used 'for teaching purposes' in the first place. In doing so, things sometimes got seriously out of hand. In the 'Nederlandsch Magazine', No, 1 of 1863 we can read that the explorer and missionary David Livingstone showed the local people slides of 'the wonders of creation', but on occasion also drove the terrified African Balonda tribe into the bush, when he presented a lantern-picture showing a life-sized Abraham who was preparing to kill his son Isaac with a knife which he held in his hand.
(See also: The Bible)
At the end of the nineteenth century magic lanterns with accompanying lanternslides could be found in all shops selling scientific instruments. One of the most important outlets in the Netherlands was Merkelbach & Co. in Amsterdam, later on a well-known toy shop in the Kalverstraat. The family still owns a letter from the Royal House, showing that even the little Wilhelmina (later to become Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands) often played with her magic lantern and with great pleasure. Mr. Merkelbach was urgently requested in this letter  to visit the palace and to bring a great number of lantern-pictures with him, in order to exchange these for those which were not of interest anymore. Of course there were no talks about a reasonable financial compensation at all. It had to be for the honour alone. (Read all about it in: Some humorous lantern slides for the little Princess.)
The magic lantern gradually found its way into the living room. The types that were sold for this purpose were much smaller than their serious brothers. For the lighting in general a simple small oil-lamp or a candle was used. A small funnel on top of the lantern regulated a smooth draught and the removal of combustion gasses. The 'lampascope' was also popular, a magic lantern with a round hole at the bottom, which could be placed over an ordinary table-oil-lamp. Such a lamp was already available in most of the households  and by doing so an additional source of lighting was unnecessary. To prevent the lantern tumbling forward, due to the weight of the lens, the lid in the back part was filled with sand to make it heavier. The appearances of the magic lanterns were quite different. The simplest ones were made of tin plate and did not cost more than one Dutch guilder. For people who could afford more expensive specimens were also available; those were made of fine mahogany or were supplied with inlaid tiles.
The lanterns were sold with matching glass-slides. Four or five round images were usually printed on the glass-strips. These often related to fairy-tale figures or subjects taken from real life. The slides were usually sold in boxes of twelve pieces and did not cost more than a few Dutch guilders. However they could also cost a few hundred. The cheapest slides were covered with a sort of transfer (decalcomanias); the most expensive ones were hand painted and placed in a wooden frame. There were real works of art among them.
Numerous tricks were applied to make the images moving. Various ingenious mechanical devices with turning glass plates, belts, cogwheels and levers were invented. For instance the angry looking schoolmaster, rolling his eyes frightfully and swinging his small stick. This would be used of course when the young spectators behaved boisterously. There were somersaulting clowns and giants from the circus, lifting their heavy weights. A train was finding its way puffing and groaning over a railway-bridge. A church, which gradually became covered by snow. And a windmill in a typically Dutch landscape. The sails are not moving. "Shall we start the sails moving, boys?" father asks his young audience. Whilst the children are blowing in the direction of the screen with all their strength, the sails start to move slowly.
Turning two hand-painted circular glasses in opposite directions produced brilliant kaleidoscopic colour-effects on the screen. These 'chromatropes' showed to full advantage if the sound of an old musical box was heard. Of course the lanternist would have a lot of 'effects' at his disposal, such as rattles, hooters, bells and, perhaps the most important, his voice.
   Een mechanische lantaarnplaat.
Advertisement slides for the pavement lantern.
A clever publicity-agent had the idea of manufacturing a 'pavement-lantern'. Due to the particularly large focus-distance of the lens it was possible to project advertisements on the pavement or on a blind wall on the other side of the street. The police had to take immediate action. The horses bolted and traffic was completely disrupted.

In 1889 the Optical Magic Lantern Journal reported that most principal railway stations were showing lantern advertisements. The slides were changing automatically every 30 seconds, day and night. The clockwork mechanism needed to be wound up by railway staff once a week.
Suddenly the success of the magic lantern stopped, because around 1910 the cinematography, the movie, was introduced. Lanternists who were worshipped as a kind of magicians until then, were given the bird and driven off if they dared to perform with their non-moving images.
The glass slide, as carrier of the image, was pushed aside by the movie and later on by the videotape, CD-rom and DVD. Children put a video into the recorder without thinking about it. We have computers with 'multimedia’. But yet..... even nowadays there are performances with the old magic lantern and it is surprising how children are still fascinated by the great miracle of the magic lantern, the Laterna Magica.
  Nederlandse versie......  What's new on this site?  ©1997-2022 'de Luikerwaal'
All rights reserved.
Last update: 04-11-2022.
Top of page......