Three hundred years before the first movie projector, there was the magic lantern, a portable optical device that projected images on a wall or screen. A descendent of the camera obscura, the magic lantern was first developed as an aide to scientific inquiry, a primitive device that required a sequence of lenses, transparent slides, and a light source (initially whale oil, but later argon gas, limelight, and finally, the incandescent lamp).
This boxy apparatus, first described by the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens in the late 1650s, began as an instrument of learning but was later co-opted by traveling salesmen, who delighted audiences with hand-painted slides that were raunchy, ghoulish, and profane. Before long, the magic lantern was fully the preserve of sleazy showmen. As Benjamin Martin, a London-based instrument maker, observed in 1740, the magic lantern was “used to surprise and amuse ignorant people…for the sake of lucre.”
By the late 18th century, the magic lantern show, in which the operator would deliver narration to accompany the slides, was well on its way to becoming a theatre of the occult, culminating in the Phantasmagoria spectacle, invented by the Belgian showman Étienne-Gaspard Robert. In 1799, he staged a performance at the Couvent des Capucines, a convent in Paris, that utilized rear projection, in which a magic lantern is mounted on a trolley behind the screen, allowing the lanternist to create the illusion of a phantom approaching the audience. This was scary but not unpleasant: a kinetic light show, accompanied by glass harmonica, that satisfied the popular taste for macabre thrills.