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The magic lantern January 12th, 2020 by

While listening to a recent broadcast on Belgium’s Radio 1 about the magic lantern and the “lanternists” who entertained paying audiences, I realised that some developments we think off as highly innovative may also be seen as a modification of something that existed hundreds of years ago. 

The magic lantern projected images on hand-painted glass slides using a lens with a light source, like a candle flame or oil lamp. The magic lantern was a great success from the 17th to the 19th century, after which it was replaced by cinema and only used by missionaries who used the most up-to-date lanterns and lenses to sway large audiences of up to 700 people.

Most historians credit the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens with the magic lantern’s invention in 1659 because he replaced images etched on mirrors from earlier devices, such as one called Kircher’s lantern, with images painted on glass. This allowed the use of colour and double-layered slide projections to simulate movement, which made for spectacular, detailed and entertaining magic lantern shows.

According to legend, the 17th century Jesuit priest, Kircher, came up with an inventive use of the lantern to convince his sceptical followers. On the glass of his lantern he had painted a realistic image of death, which he projected in the evening on simple farmhouses. The next Sunday morning his church was packed with standing room only. As Kircher was aware that some of his predecessors had been charged with sorcery for using projected images, seen as “the workings of the devil”, Kircher was clever enough to demystify the show by explaining that it involved reflection and optics, not magic.

The magic lantern was not invented by any one individual, but very much came from several minds applied to new and different, ever-evolving ways of creating images to project on screens. Some magic lantern shows were quite sophisticated, using multiple lanterns or several lenses to improve magnification and clarity, or to dissolve one scene into another.

At first, the “lanternist,” as the projectionist was known, simply used a plain cotton or canvas sheet, or even just a wall, but the emergence of luminous painted glass slides – with their bright colours and detailed images – also spurred developments in screen technology. Cinema was born in the 1890s, and in the 1930s plastics started to replace cloth screens. Later, various coatings were used that gave the cinema its nickname, “the silver screen”.

The silver screen may have wiped out the magic lanterns, but other devices were used over the twentieth century for education and entertainment. Small projectors with 8 mm film were used in schools and for “home movies.” Academic talks were often illustrated with overhead projectors and slides, while the DVD player and the projector that could be attached to the laptop brought videos to much wider audiences. In the 2000s, the Digisoft smart projector was the latest device for sharing sights and sounds with audiences of up to 200 people.

The “lanternist” earned money from organising shows, travelling from place to place with the projector in a box carried on his back. The concept of these early mobile screening entrepreneurs has recently been re-introduced by Access Agriculture, an international organisation that supports ecological farming in developing countries through farmer training videos (see the full video library at: www.accessagriculture.org).

While centuries ago, lanternists were adults, Access Agriculture has established a network of young, ICT-savvy, entrepreneurs who make a business from screening training videos to rural communities. Lanternists travelled from village to village with a small collection of glass slides. Today’s young entrepreneurs are equipped with a Digisoft smart projector, a foldable solar panel and a library of more than 200 videos, each one in multiple languages. The whole kit is small enough to take on a motorcycle, but casts an image large and sharp enough for a whole village. Being able to screen videos on demand, these young people bring entertainment and education to remote areas where there is no electricity or internet.

Like the old lanternists, the youth with their smart projectors are using the best technology of their day, but sharing down-to-earth ideas that family farmers need for a changing world.

Watch a young entrepreneur show videos in rural Africa

On the road with the smart projector in Uganda

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