Magic lanterns and the rise of '19th-century Netflix'

Updated 7th September 2018
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Magic lanterns and the rise of '19th-century Netflix'
Written by Katy Scott, CNN
Before the first motion pictures were made, the Victorians were pioneering their own version of Netflix, new research shows.
As early as the 1840s, families in Britain could rent image projection devices called "magic lanterns" to cast visual spectacles of faraway lands, scenes from comic books or even major news events onto the walls of their own homes, according to new research unveiled at the British Association for Victorian Studies 2018 Annual Conference last week.
Across the nation, people would go to shows put on by "lanternists," who would slot images painted or photographed on transparent plates into the projector and bring them to life using rudimentary special effects, narration, and theatrics.
To explore how magic lanterns might have been used in the home, Professor John Plunkett, a Victorian specialist at the University of Exeter, in England, pored over hundreds of 19th-century newspaper advertisements.
He found that booksellers, chemists, opticians and stationers would moonlight as magic lantern operators, advertising their devices, shows and content for hire in community newspapers.
"If you were in any British town or city, you would be able to go to your local high street and rent out lantern slides or a lantern show," Plunkett tells CNN. "It was very much like having a Blockbuster shop just down the road."
Customers could hire out just the equipment, or the "complete package" which included a lantern operator to put on the show.
Lantern shows were initially only for the well-to-do, he explains, and reserved for special occasions like Christmas or birthday parties.
But over time this form of home entertainment became such a successful commercial practice that small businesses began offering subscriptions to libraries of thousands of lantern slides, explains Plunkett.
Magic lantern slides telling the story of "Puss in Boots."
Magic lantern slides telling the story of "Puss in Boots." Credit: Victoria Stobo/Bill Douglas Cinema Museum
He concludes that this Victorian model of media consumption closely resembles how people pay to view content on Netflix and Amazon today.
"This [research] shows that the practice was going on much earlier than people realize... and it was made up of lots of little local businesses," he says.
Magic lantern specialists and founders of the Kent Museum of the Moving Image in England, Jocelyn Marsh and David Francis say the findings make sense.
"The research doesn't surprise me and is very interesting," Marsh tells CNN. "Local newspapers are a mine of information that has rarely been properly researched. It's so great that this pattern of the past has been partially uncovered."

The magic of the lantern

An engraving of a magic lantern show given for 1,450 poor children in Fulham, London in 1889.
An engraving of a magic lantern show given for 1,450 poor children in Fulham, London in 1889. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Businesses were advertising a vast range of slides including images depicting comics, fairytales, astronomy, scripture, travelogues and adaptations of popular novels, explains Plunkett.
But the crowd pleasers were undoubtedly the slides with grotesque or gothic special effects.
"By all accounts the most popular slide of the century was a moving slide showing you a sleeping man with an enormous beard in pajamas, and as he was snoring and opening his mouth there was a whole series of rats going down his throat into his stomach," says Plunkett.
This was achieved using a lantern with two lenses working in tandem to project images onto the same spot, dissolving one into the other, he explains. In such a way the lanternist could manipulate movement, transform a scene from day to night or even make a ghost appear.

3D tours of the world

From about the 1850s another device began to capture the public imagination — the stereoscope. Much like a virtual reality headset, when viewers looked into this eyepieces they would experience two photographs mounted next to one another as a single three-dimensional scene.
"On the big stereoscope devices you could have 100 scenes ... so you could put in your own tour around the world in 3D," says Plunkett.
He explains that local businesses and eventually national slide libraries would hire out both lantern slides and stereographs.
As with technology today, over time the content and devices became significantly cheaper and more accessible, he adds.
"There's not just one magic lantern. It's one technology, but there are all sorts of different devices at different prices to fit different audiences, much like the market for TVs and computers today," he says.