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The magic Lantern

The magic lantern is an early type of image projector that used pictures, paintings and photographs on transparent plates made of glass. It has lenses and a light source. A single lens inverts an image through it. Slides were inserted upside down in the magic lantern so that projected image is correctly oriented. The Latin name of magic lantern is lantern Magica. It was mostly developed in the 17th century used for entertainment purposes. In the 19th century it was used for education purposes.

The magic lantern used a concave mirror behind a light source to direct the light through a rectangular sheet of glass that bore the image and onward into a lens. By adjusting the lens an enlarged image is formed on the screen.

Dutch Scientist Christian Huygens is considered as the inventor of the magic lantern. The oldest known document concerning the magic lantern is a page on which he made ten small sketches of a skeletal taking off its skull above which he wrote for representations by mean’s of convex glasses with the Lamp. Christian initially referred to the magic lantern as “la lempe” and ‘la lanterne’. In later years he used the term “Lantern Magica”. In 1694 he drew the principle of a lantern mgica with two lenses. T.R. Wallenstein, a mathematician from Gotland met Christian Huygens and might have learnt magic lantern from him. Wallenstein projected an image of death at the court of king Frederick III of Denmark. This scared some courtiers, but the king dismissed cowardice and requsted to repent the image three times. The king dies a few days later. After walgensten died, his wife sold his lanterns to the Royal Danishcollection. Walgensten is credited with coining the term” Lanterna Magica.

There are many gaps and uncertainties in the history of magic lantern. A mayic lantern tradition was developed in southern Germany. It includes lanterns with horizontal cylindrical bodies, while walgensten’s lantern had vertical bodies. This tradition dates back to 1671. Before 1671, a small circle of people had of magic lantern. The earliest reports and illustrations of magic lantern projections that they were meant to scare the audience. So it was called “lantern of fear” The magic lantern is an optical lantern which presents everything-figures, portraits, faces, hunts etc with all its lively colours. It also exhibits attempts at flights, artistic meters optical effects, representations of the sky, with stars and comets and a model of the earth, fireworks, water fountains ships in rare forms, mandrakes and other rare plants and exotic animals. The use of magic lantern used for educational purposes-detailed an a tomical illustrations were difficult to draw on a chalk board but could easily be copied onto glass or mica.

By the 1730, the use of magic lanterns started to become more widespread by travelling showmen, conjurers and story tellers. The travelling lanternists were called Savoyards, as they came from Savoy region of France. They become ubiquitous in many European cities. This lantern become a form of shadow play. The popularity of magic lantern decreased after the introduction of movies in the 1890s. The magic lantern was a direct ancestor of the motion picture projector for visual story telling. The magic lantern is still popular with collectors and can be found in many museums. It is really an magical projection device with the help of lenses, condensers and artificial light onto a screen or wall or opaque ‘surface’.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own.)

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Radhakanta Seth is a former Income tax officer in Sambalpur.  He is a freelance writer and his articles have been published in some Oriya dailies like Sambad, Samaj, Dharitri, and English dailies like The Telegraph and in a sociological journal ‘Folklore’ published in Kolkata.

He can be reached at [email protected]


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