Magic lantern

19th century magic lantern with printed slide inserted (upright, so if the lantern were lit it would project an inverted picture)
Magic lantern slide by Carpenter and Westley

The magic lantern, also known by its Latin name lanterna magica, is an early type of image projector employing pictures painted, printed or produced photographically on transparent plates (usually made of glass), one or more lenses, and a light source. It was mostly developed in the 17th century and commonly used for entertainment purposes. It was increasingly applied to educational purposes during the 19th century. Since the late 19th century smaller versions were also mass-produced as a toy for children. The magic lantern was in wide use from the 18th century until the mid-20th century, when it was superseded by a compact version that could hold many 35 mm photographic slides: the slide projector.



A page of Willem 's Gravesande's 1720 book Physices Elementa Mathematica with Jan van Musschenbroek's magic lantern projecting a monster. The depicted lantern is one of the oldest known to be preserved and is in the collection of Museum Boerhaave, Leiden

The magic lantern used a concave mirror in back of a light source to direct as much of the light as possible through a small rectangular sheet of glass—a "lantern slide"—on which was the image to be projected, and onward into a lens at the front of the apparatus. The lens was adjusted to optimally focus the plane of the slide at the distance of the projection screen, which could be simply a white wall, and it therefore formed an enlarged image of the slide on the screen. [1] Some lanterns, including those of Christiaan Huygens and Jan van Musschenbroek, used 3 lenses.


Originally the pictures were hand painted on glass slides. Initially figures were rendered with black paint but soon transparent colors were also used. Sometimes the painting was done on oiled paper. Usually black paint was used as a background to block superfluous light, so the figures could be projected without distracting borders or frames. Many slides were finished with a layer of transparent lacquer, but in a later period cover glasses were also used to protect the painted layer. [2] Most hand-made slides were mounted in wood frames with a round or square opening for the picture. [3]

A paper rimmed mass-produced slide.

After 1820 the manufacturing of hand colored printed slides started, often making use of decalcomania transfers. [4] Many manufactured slides were produced on strips of glass with several pictures on them and rimmed with a strip of glued paper.

The first photographic lantern slides, called "Hyalotypes", were invented by the German-born brothers Ernst Wilhelm (William) and Friedrich (Frederick) Langenheim in 1848 in Philadelphia and patented in 1850. [5] [6] [7]

Light sources

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 invention 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. [8]

Other Languages
čeština: Laterna magica
Esperanto: Magia lanterno
français: Lanterne magique
한국어: 환등기
Bahasa Indonesia: Lentera ajaib
italiano: Lanterna magica
עברית: פנס קסם
Lëtzebuergesch: Laterna magica
Nederlands: Toverlantaarn
日本語: 幻灯機
norsk nynorsk: Laterna magica
português: Lanterna mágica
suomi: Taikalyhty
Türkçe: Büyülü fener
українська: Чарівний ліхтар