History of Science Museum: Collection Database Search


Exhibition Label "Light Fantastic" (20 November 2015 - 8 January 2016)

Magic Lantern Light

The magic lantern or Laterna Magica is a type of image projector employing pictures on sheets of glass. Projected onto walls they could be viewed by large audiences. Sitting in a dark room, looking at these large projected images transported audiences to another world. These particular images are from giant-sized slides created exclusively for the crowds at The Royal Polytechnic Institution, which provided a vast programme of entertainment and popular education in the mid-19th century. The slides display scenes from the Crimean War shown in1854 and depict voyages into the Arctic.

Developed in the 17th century, Magic Lantern projections were commonly used for education and entertainment. Mirrors direct as much light as possible through a rectangular sheet of glass – a “lantern slide” – with a painted or photographic image on it. The light then passes through a lens which projects the image onto a white wall or viewing screen. Apart from sunlight, the only light sources available at the time of invention in the 17th century were candles and oil lamps, which were very inefficient and produced very dim projected images. The invention of the Argand lamp in the 1790s helped to make the images brighter. The arrival of limelight in the 1820s made them very much brighter. The invention of the intensely bright electric arc lamp in the 1860s eliminated the need for combustible gases or hazardous chemicals, and eventually the incandescent electric lamp further improved safety and convenience, although not brightness.

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