Inside the Collection

The amazing pre-history of cinema

Chromatrope, a mechanical slide for an early type of projector called a magic lantern
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Happy New Year to our blog readers. Today we have some historic fireworks to share with you. This intriguing device is a chromatrope, a mechanical slide for an early type of projector called a magic lantern. As the operator turned the handle, two images turned in opposite directions to produce a moving, varying display on a wall or screen. There were movies long before the movie camera was invented! Here’s a close-up of the image on the slide.

Close up image of chromatrope
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

We haven’t filmed our chromatropes (otherwise called ‘artificial fireworks’) in action, so please take a look at Henc de Roo’s wonderful magic lantern webpage and discover the magic for yourself. The whole site is fascinating in terms of the technical detail, the images, and the evocation of an era.

When I first discovered our chromatropes, I imagined the idea was from the late 1800s. However, the inventor was Sir David Brewster, who also invented the kaleidoscope, and the year was 1846. In fact de Roo traces the beginnings of mechanical slides to 1736, giving cinema a very long pre-history. He also has a page on Fantoccini slides, which incorporate mechanically operated figures, miniature puppets controlled by the projectionist.

The light source in pre-electric magic lanterns could be a candle, oil lamp or limelight burner. We have a magnificent lantern in our collection, made by Lizars of Edinburgh. If you are wondering why its chimney is so elaborate, its large surface area provides the clue; limelight burners in particular generate a lot of heat as well as light, and this design is more effective at dissipating heat than a simpler chimney.

Magic Latern, large polished mahogany box with brass fittings and blued ironn chimney.
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Museum Victoria has created a video showing a projectionist (in period costume) running a magic lantern slide show. You can see it here or in the Melbourne Gallery, where two projectors are set up side by side and several slides are on display. Check out the dissolve function, which uses related images in the two projectors and a shutter swinging back and forth in front of the lenses.

Slide shows were often multimedia events, with music, a spoken narrative and audience participation. The UK-based Magic Lantern Society has a library of readings to accompany slide shows. For instance, there’s a seven page script to accompany 14 slides telling a story titled ‘The fatal sneeze’. The title of a one-page two-slide story told in verse tickles my fancy: ‘The first problem: the soliloquy of a rationalistic chicken’.

If you’d like to delve deeper into the history of the magic lantern and its links to cinema history, this article by Deac Rossell, which pushes the first date for moving pictures back to 1697, is an excellent starting point. Like de Roo, Rossell names scientist Christiaan Huygens as the likely inventor of the magic lantern. I’m interested in Huygens as a leading player in the Scientific Revolution. He made significant contributions to optics (the magic lantern rather palls beside his wave theory of light) and invented the pendulum clock. He also conceived an internal combustion engine based on gunpowder exploding in a cylinder, another example of the pre-history of a very important technology.

Here is another of our chromatropes.

Close up chromatrope
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

2 responses to “The amazing pre-history of cinema

  • I have an old Brownie Model E and a Polish camera from the 1950’s
    Would you be interested in my giving them to you?

    • Hi Sandy,
      Thanks for getting in touch. If you have an item you would like to consider donating to the Museum’s collection please email and your offer will be forwarded to one of our Curators for consideration. There is more information about donating to the Collection here. Please note that items offered for donation cannot be left at the Museum. If you have any further questions, we will be able to answer them via the above email.
      Kind regards, Sarah Reeves, Powerhouse Museum

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