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Magic Lantern


What’s so Magical about a Magic Lantern?
School Archivist Dr. Susan Nalezyty discusses the teaching of astronomy at Georgetown Visitation using the first moving pictures in the mid-nineteenth century.

Eclipse fever swept over our country this past August, and in that spirit, Sr. Mada-anne, our Monastery Archivist, transferred to the School Archives some extraordinary mid-nineteenth century pedagogical materials. She gave us a complete set of 9 Magic Lantern mechanical slides, with hand-painted images on glass illustrating astronomical phenomena (fig. 1). One of them, when projected, illustrates a solar eclipse!



Figure 1. Magic Lantern mechanical slides with astronomical subjects. Complete set of 9 with original wooden box. Circa 1859. Wood, brass, and hand-painted glass. Collection of the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School Archives.


These slides arrived together with their original storage box, which still bears the retailer’s label: “James W. Queen & Co. Opticians.” Following this evidence leads us precisely to the source from which the Sisters bought the slides. This company’s 1859 catalogue lists this exact slide set for $35.

How does a Magic Lantern work?
Electric bulbs were not invented, so the light source was an oil or alcohol lamp that burned a cotton wick. At first, they projected hand-painted images on glass, but these static views gave way to slides that were animated via levers and pulleys, which revolved superimposed glass plates in opposite directions. This created one image that appeared to change into another. These early projected images, then, were the first “moving pictures.”

How were Magic Lanterns used?
These early slide projectors were novel contraptions for amusing one’s parlor guests (see featured image above). Lectures with projected images held in theaters soon began to draw paying audiences to attend shows that were humorous, moralizing, or entertaining. Phantasmagoria spectacles, as they were called, featured frightening images that would move back and forth to scare audiences—like a funhouse.

The Magic Lantern’s instructive potential soon became apparent, and the technology innovated to meet educators’ demands. Slides manufacturers developed an easy-to-use system for rotating the two glass plates by way of a rack and pinion system, which rotated the glass discs by simply turning a handle.



Figure 2. Magic Lantern mechanical slide with the astronomical subject: The Earth’s Annual Motion round the Sun, moving through the Constellations of the Zodiac. Collection of the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School Archives.











Figure 3. Deane Walker lecturing at the Royal Opera House, London, 1817.




Spinning images easily lent themselves to the illustration of orbiting celestial bodies. One of Queen’s “Movable Astronomical Diagrams,” which Visitation owns, featured an illustration of the earth’s annual motion around the sun with the zodiac constellations (fig. 2). An image of a projected slide like ours survives in an extraordinary 1817 engraving of a public lecture (fig. 3). It shows the famous speaker, Deane Walker, who toured around the UK lecturing on astronomy. Sadly, Mr. Walker’s spirited gestures with his long pointer stick seems to be getting no one’s attention in the audience attending his lecture, “The Grand Transparent Orrey.”

What do Visitation’s Slides look like when Projected?
As School Archivist, I would love nothing more than to project these slides for our students today, but, alas, Visitation’s Magic Lantern perished in the 1993 fire. The slides had apparently been in a separate room, and luckily were saved. As with many things, the internet can fill the gap. Here is a video featuring slide projections like ours: a comet, a lunar eclipse, a solar eclipse, and the diurnal motion of earth.


Figure 4. Magic Lantern mechanical slide with astronomical subject: The Solar System, showing the Revolution of all the Planets with their Satellites round the Sun. Detail of rackwork. Circa 1859. Wood, brass, and hand-painted glass. Collection of the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School Archives.





Here features another of our slides, which illustrates the solar system with the 8 planets (known at the time) with their moons, orbiting the sun (fig. 4). How this mechanical slide works is quite simply a marvel, coordinating with watch-like precision the rotating of 7 toothed rings that synchronize with the pinion to move each glass in perfect unison.

Visitation students in the 1860s did not have their own planetarium, but they studied astronomy with something close to it, which they paid an additional fee of $5 to fund the purchase of “philosophical apparatus,” as it was called in our school prospectus. Showing these images to their students in a darkened classroom, then, the Sisters who taught astronomy could enact their very own solar eclipse, at any time. I am grateful to our contemporary Sister, Sr. Mada-anne, for sharing these wonderful objects with the School at such an important time, astrologically speaking.

Featured image above: Engraving of a Magic Lantern projection in a domestic parlor. Published in James W. Queen & Co. Illustrated Catalogue, 1889.
Further reading on Magic Lantern astronomical slides.
For other blogs by Dr. Nalezyty, in the School Archives, Salesian Center

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