Magic lantern

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The magic lantern was an early form of projector for visual images, widely used for entertainment and educational purposes in the 18th and 19th centuries.


Also known by its Latin name, lanterna magica, it was a development from the apparatus was ostensibly first fully developed by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in the late 17th century and was initially largely used for entertainment purposes. Increasingly also used for education during the 19th century, when smaller versions were also mass-produced as toys.

Initially used to present picture shows, as self-standing acts or shows, it soon also became a useful tool in spectacle oriented theatre productions, such as melodramas.

The magic lantern lost favour as an entertainment form in itself, by the end of the 19th century, as motion pictures evolved, and was eventually superseded as a piece of theatrical equipment by the development of a compact version that could hold many 35 mm photographic slides: namely the well-known 20th century slide projector. This in turn, was itself later replaced by far more versatile inventions of the computer age, such as digital power point projectors and digital movie projectors and so on.


Pepper's Ghost

The magic lantern technology led to the evolution of the origin of other theatrical illusions, notably what became known as Pepper's Ghost[1], an illusion technique performed by reflecting an image of an object off-stage so that it appears to be in front of the audience.[1] This was widely used in the pre-digital world of the theatre, cinema, amusement parks, museums, television, and concerts.

The term as a name

The term magic lantern was also used for various theatrical companies and venues over the years, e.g. Rainbow and Magic Lantern Cinemas, in Canada, Magic Lantern, a theater in Bridgton, Maine, United States, Laterna Magika, a Czech theater in Prague and Magic Lantern, a street theater and puppetry group in the 1970s.

The magic lantern in South African theatre and performance

For the general use of the technology, see the entries on Magician, Ghost Illusions, Music hall, Carnival, Improvised Theatre Space,

For some specific productions, see for example La Fantasmagorie, Mr Poortemans, :


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