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A Short History Of The Camera - The Magic Lantern
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A Short History Of the Camera  -  The Magic Lantern

You've completed your day’s work in the field tilling the soil around the cucumbers and weeding the onions for your master. Upon good work done and your master’s kind heart, he pays your way to the new and exciting show tonight!

You've heard about surreal happenings in earlier productions of the show and you can’t wait to experience them yourself, so you do not hesitate. There is no need to change clothes or wash up because for the times, bathing was considered an opportunity for evil spirits to enter the soul!

Excitement fills the air as smelly patrons eagerly await the magical spells and visitations of the spirits to take place on the stage. This was the show of shows! The theatre has acquired new, magic-inducing equipment to help raise the spirits...the Magic Lantern.

During the show, you indeed see the spirits levitate above the screen! “Wow! Wait till my master hears about this!”

Nobody in the audience has any idea what they’re looking at and gasps can be heard...

The Magic Lantern - Holds Prominent Place in the History of the Camera

What you experienced in the theatre was a modified camera obscura - a medieval camera. These were very simple rooms, and later, boxes that have been made lightproof except for a tiny hole through which light enters, projecting an upside-down, inverted image of the scene outside the box.

What makes one of these early cameras a magic lantern are one or more mirrors strategically-placed inside the unit. Placed at a rough 45-degree angle, intercepting the incoming light, and directing it to a special opening in the camera. The redirected light passed the image of the profusely illuminated subject to the front of the curtains on the stage, moving about without moving her feet and levitating in thin air.

What Were the Earliest Usages of the Magic Lantern?

It is not known whether or not the theatrical industry, during early stage production, was the first to utilize the magic lantern, but nonetheless, theatre used the instrument extensively, up to the mid-19th century!

The magic lantern was also known to have been used to help produce works of art. Special adapters for the device were fitted, enabling artists to trace their subjects, scenery, etc. This created a far more accurate representation of the subject being portrayed...the earliest forms of today’s projectors.

To the audience a little bit of steam, some good actors, and ghostly costumes added to the thrill, but the use of projection made the hovering spirits far too realistic for many spirited folks!

Improvements for the Camera Obscura.

The earliest practical usage for the camera obscura was for drawing (artwork) and entertainment.

To theatre, the strategic placement of mirrors inside the camera obscura put ghostly images wherever they wanted the audience to see them. Manually moving the camera, subject’s movements, and adjusting the mirrors helped generate great revenue from patrons.

Eventually, the hole in the camera obscura was replaced with a lens. This allowed much more light into the camera, improved focusability and the miniaturization of camera obscuras in general.

Most common folks had no idea what projection, the camera obscura nor magic lantern were. To many, the scene was heavenly or absolutely frightening...depending on the show’s content.

In Recap:

  • The magic lantern is a specialized utilization of the camera obscura.
  • It contributed much to development throughout the history of the camera.
  • It was strategically-fitted with mirrors to project the image outside the camera to its intended target.
  • The open hole in earlier camera obscuras was eventually replaced with glass lens optics, vastly improving camera performance.
  • Until scarcely more than a century ago, he magic lantern was extensively used in theatre.
  • In art, an image can be projected to a medium where it could be permanently captured by tracing over it.
  • The magic lantern evolved into the modern projectors we have today (and are now phasing out.)
  • The simple modifications to the camera obscura is of fundamental importance, though our latest generation of cameras today “project” the image in the form of data files.


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