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Volume 29, January 1645.

Magic Lantern Is Invented
But By Whom?

The oldest drawing of a magic lantern can be found in a sketchbook of Johannes de Fontana. Dating from 1420 it depicts a monk holding such a lantern.

In the side of the lantern there is a small translucent window carrying an image of a 'devil' holding a lance. The image, said to probably have been detailed on a thin sheet of bone, was supposedly projected onto a wall by the lantern flame. Without a lens the process would have produced a very blurry image.

This print from about 1645 by the polymath Jesuit scholar Athansius Kircher illustrates an early idea for a Magic Lantern slide projector.

Such lanterns were powered by a small oil lamp shown on the left (smoking) and projected images from handpainted glass slides (mid-picture) onto a screen (shown on the right).

Unfortunately, Kircher didn't quite know where to put the lens. Look closely and you'll notice that he has placed it between the oil lamp light source on the left, and the slides that he wants projected on the screen. In order for this to properly work, the lens needs to between the slide and the screen, otherwise the result will be a very blurry image.

There are other people who lay claim to the invention of the Magic Lantern. In order, they are: Johannes de Fontana - 1420, Pierre Fournier - 1515, Giovanni Battista della Porta - 1589 - Italy, Athansius Kircher - 1646 - Germany - France, Christiaan Huygens - 1659 - Holland, Rasmusser Walgertsen - 1660 Denmark, and Claude Millet 1674 - France,

As early as 1420 Giovanni da Fontana, a young Venetian academic in Padua proposed the mischievous notion of painting demonic shapes on the horn window of an ordinary lantern in order to frighten people with the grotesque shadows thereby cast upon a wall. Without a condenser to concentrate the lamplight or a lens to focus the image, however, Giovanni's shadows must have been fairly vague. Almost two and a half centuries more passed before the lantern acquired the magic of precise representation.

In 1645 polymath Jesuit scholar Athansius Kircher (1601 - 1680) described and illustrated a device for reflecting the light of the sun from a mirror, through a lens and onto a screen. In 1671 in a new edition of his book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), Kircher himself described and illustrated a magic lantern - unfortunately rather inaccurately, the relationship of the image to be projected and the lens shown were reversed in relation to the light source.

Since these were the first printed illustrations of the magic lantern, Kircher has been frequently credited with its invention, a more likely claimant appears to be the Dutch Physicist Christiaan Huygens whose correspondence shows him to have been using a practical magic lantern as early as 1659. Huygens dealt with a London optician named Richard Reeves, who was selling lanterns by 1663.

Diarist Samuel Pepys noted in his entry for August 19, 1666, two weeks before the Great Fire of London, writing in his diary.

"Comes by agreement Mr. Reeves, bringing a 'lanthorn', with pictures in glasse to make strange things to appear on a wall, very pretty".

By 1664, a Danish scientist Thomas Rasmussen Walgenstein, the first writer to use the name Lanterna Magica, was demonstrating the device in various European cities.

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Reference pages

Jesuit scholar Athansius Kircher (1601 - 1680)