Before moving pictures. Before silent film. Before black and white. Before Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin.
There was the Magic Lantern.
Let's say you're a Regency thrillseeker, out to squeeze all possible enjoyment from an evening. You might go to a Magic Lantern show at a friend's house. You might put one on yourself.
People had known more or less forever that light shining through colored glass carried that color to where the light fell. Every stained glass window in Europe, even every translucent leaf in the sunlight, every light source shining through colored glass cast an image.
The beauty of that. A picture painted in light.
Being the inventive species we are, we wanted to do that at will, casting the image we chose. The earliest technology for doing this dates to the Seventeenth Century. Shine candlelight through a demon or ghost thinly painted on glass; let your image fall onto a gauze screen or a column of smoke; and presto!
You got magic in your magic show.
You're a hit with the locals whom you have just terrified.
In the Eighteenth Century, itinerant 'lanternists' travelled the countryside carrying the cabinet that held their slides and their lantern, giving shows at country inns and fairs.
One disgusted contemporary writer remarks,
"These showmen were not romantic troubadours, but often as unwholesome and grotesque in appearance as the images they cast onto the white sheet."
The Magic Lantern became sort of a parlor amusement and novelty. Samuel Pepys bought one in 1666,"to make strange things on a wall."
You can think of it as a Georgian slide projector.
(Though a slide projector is getting to be a n antiquated piece of technology itself.)
How did it work?
(You can skip this bit if you want.)
The anatomy of the Magic Lantern is:
(a) An oil lamp making light. It's inside the casing on the left of this picture where you can't see it, but it has that little stack for the heat to come out of.
(b) A condensing lens — which you also can't see because it is inside that casing — sending all the lamp light through a slot, which you can see.
(c) Painted glass plates fit into that slot. The top picture is without a glass
(d) And then you have a barrel on the right end with a lens that enlarges the image as it emerges and heads toward whatever wall or sheet is being used as a screen.
You see the limiting factor here, don't you? It's the light source. An oil lamp is just not very strong. The Argand lamp, after 1780, went a ways toward creating that powerful and beautiful image you wanted to project.
<sound of crickets>
Okay. I can see you are bowled over by the blazing beacon of six or eight candlepower. But this was a significant advance. Trust me on this.
And just as a side note, oil lamps you see in Regency portraits are like as not Argand lamps. They were the halogen bulbs of their day.
But let us leave mere apparatus. The Magic Lantern was all about The Show.
Often, he'd insert a long strip of glass with four or five images painted on it and draw that through the slot in the magic lantern, changing scenes as he lay down his experienced patter. His exciting story. He might even have an assistant providing music.
Then he'd pass the hat.
A contemporary expert advises:
"You are then to pass the glass slowly through the groove; and when you come to that part where the storm begins, you are to move the glass gently up and down, which will give it the appearance of a sea that begins to be agitated: and so increase the motion till you come to the height of the storm. At the same lime you are to introduce the other glass with the ships, and moving that in like manner, you will have a natural representation of the sea, and of ships in a calm and in a storm."
Wild times in Regency England. It's a Magic Lantern show in the Squire's drawing room. Cummon, Regency dandy, grab some popcorn and hold your sweetie close.
(Okay. Maybe not the anachronistic popcorn.)
But this Magic Lantern is the Olduvai ancestor of the Saturday Matinee, of Star Wars and The Avengers, of iMax 3D. Look at it there, smack in the middle of Georgian and Regency times.
Our Regency characters would always remember going to a Magic Lantern show.
Pulling on that thread ... What's your most treasured memory of going to the movies?
For me it's heading down to the Saturday morning early show in the summer,
because the movies were Air Conditioned! — and the house wasn't.
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