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The Magic Lantern - The Device Which Would Not Die

There is no question about it. The magic lantern is a splendid looking beast- all shining mahogany and gleaming brass. But what does this strange object mean to us in our high tech digital world? Beyond a kind of steam punk charm, what does it have to offer a modern audience of today?

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Lasers and plastics and slides, oh my!

What do you get when you put together an international group of artists, a media archaeologist, a team of makers, laser cutters and 3D printers? Magic lantern slides 200 years in the making.

Over the course of its long and colorful history, magic lanterns have appeared in wide variety of contexts, ranging from faux seances in Parisian crypts to scientific lectures at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London to evangelistic meetings in the South Pacific and Africa. As the content of lantern shows shifted over time, projectors and slides also evolved to incorporate the latest technology. The debut of Carpenter and Westley’s copperplate-printed slides in the early 1820s made lantern slides widely available for the first time, empowering amateur and professional projectionists alike. In an effort to make these images move, the Victorians marshalled a cadre of ingenious wood-and-brass devices that slid, rotated, and rocked pieces of painted glass. Place these devices in a projector, and poof-- figures dance, float, and lunge across the screen.

Like other screen historians, I started gravitating towards performance as a way of studying early moving images and the machines that produced them. The deeper I delved into the lantern’s global history through eyewitness accounts of nineteenth-century magic lantern shows, the more I saw the lantern show as a vibrant, interactive, infinitely adaptable, and ever-evolving performance medium. As an extension of my research, I began experimenting with new technologies to make magic lantern slides widely available for performing artists and lantern enthusiasts-- Carpenter and Westley’s copperplate-printed slides for the twenty-first century.

Instead of brass and glass, the slides in Erewhon are animated by 3D-printed gears and laser-cut acrylic embedded in a laser-cut wooden frame. The most complex of these mechanisms is modeled after “the rat catcher”, a perennial favorite in Victorian lantern shows (see the Kent Museum of the Moving Image’s version in action here).  The original slide contains three pieces of glass. On the stationary piece of glass, a man with a large black beard lies fast asleep. The man’s jaw is painted on a second, moveable piece of glass. One of the upper corners of the glass is secured to the frame so that the operator can move the man’s jaw up and down while snoring loudly. The final piece of glass contains one or more mice and is secured to a rackwork mechanism embedded in the slide’s frame. As the operator turns the handle, the glass with the mouse rotates, and the mouse appears to creep up the man’s bed linens and into his mouth. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for the mouse.

Much like their Victorian counterparts, Erewhon’s slides bear the fingerprints of many makers who combine artistry with technical expertise. When you look at the slides, you’ll see the handiwork Andy Webb who introduced me to Tinkercad, a free 3D modeling software, and helped me prototype early versions of the rackwork mechanism on UITS’s Ultimaker. There’s Ryan Mandell, Director of the MAD LABS, whose expertise in stereolithography resulted in more precise pins and diving components. Mat Whiteley, my laser-cutting hero, brought his background as a digital artist and animator to the slides. Jeremy Brooker (a celebrated lanternist in his own right) designed images that blended historic slide material with a few twists. You’ll see Kalani Craig, Michelle Dalmau, Adam Maltese, and the IU Makes community who tirelessly support of innovation in research and in the classroom through engagement with emergent technologies. Out of this community comes lantern slides that have not been made in 100 years.

Incredible as the slides are, the magic of the lantern show is not generated by the slides themselves. If you’re lucky enough to experience Erewhon, you’ll discover that the true magic comes from the performers who bring these slides to life. Arthur Meek’s whip smart writing and engaging performance style invites us to see the technology as fellow storyteller by making the magic lantern and the iPhone part of the very fabric of Erewhon itself. Add to this Eva Prowse’s ethereal voice and synth soundtrack, and you get an adventure that is breathtaking, cleverly cheeky, provocative, and nothing short of extraordinary.

For further exploration:
Take a virtual tour of Indiana University’s makerspaces here:

For a closer look at the rat catcher slide, check out Andrew Gill’s short introduction:

See what’s happening in the magic lantern world on both sides of the Atlantic through the Magic Lantern Society of the UK ( and the Magic Lantern Society of the US and Canada’s Facebook page (


Written and performed by Arthur Meek. Music by Eva Prowse
UK première as part of Summerhall's Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, 1-26 August 2018.

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What is a Magic Lantern Today?

The magic lantern has been around for 350 years. This little glowing box that threw pictures on screen was one of the world’s most important ways of sharing images. It lived on the backs of travelling entertainers, and in the mahogany parlours of wealthy scientists, it was shown in palaces and pubs and is still with us today. A magic lantern is only a projector—a light-sealed chamber with an illuminant inside and a series of lenses—and it fell into lots of unexpected places.

The 1960s carousel slide projector that your granny showed her holiday snaps on was a magic lantern. Those little cardboard smartphone projectors are magic lanterns. When you give a powerpoint presentation, you are giving a magic lantern show. A motion picture projector is just a magic lantern with an extra mechanical (or digital) contraption. There are still literally tens of surviving lanternists, scribbling out shows at the margins of popular culture, as they had in the eighteenth century. But things have changed a little bit.

I am a historian of technology. My job is to find life in the discarded machines of the past and show how these long-broken mechanical trinkets once changed the world. Not only for scientists and engineers—I mostly do not care about the rich inventors—but for everyone. I care about how technologies flitted around the everyday world and changed how people lived. The lantern was an exemplary everyday technology. It was the machine that people used to talk back to a changing age of machines.

So I started to give lantern shows. First, this was because I was giving papers and lectures anyway and it made little sense to use a digital projector. I bought a mid-nineteenth century Phantasmagoria lantern and fitted it with a simple electric light. I stumbled about picking up the odd slide here and there, trying to get the right ones, from the right era, making do with the stories and pictures I found, twisting my material to fit them.

I gave lantern performances in Durham, Bradford, York, and London. I took it to conferences and didn’t tell anyone until I started. I once presented a paper with a lantern at Cambridge. I sang a streetseller’s song about Lavender and claimed, in broad Geordie, that my family were street performers going back to the sixteenth century. I told a falsified history of working-class technology, called the middle-class historians liars and chauvinists, and no one challenged me on my methodology. I love the lantern as a mode of speaking because it authorises you to break rules; because no one today quite knows what it should be for.

This is the recurring problem of the modern lanternist. There are different perspective on what constitutes an ‘authentic’ lantern performance. Some people give very grand, technically sophisticated shows to reveal how complex and marvellous it was. Others give low-fi, comic performances, riffing on their own awfulness and the limitations of the apparatus. Some shows are informative, most are hilarious, and often the biggest shock is just seeing the beauty of the images. There was never one single style. The lantern tunnelled into so many different contexts. It has been everything.


I do not always care for the grand lantern shows or the bumbling comedians. They too often rest on false assumptions of victorian splendour or historical stupidity. The very best shows I have seen used these old technologies to do something new. Last year I saw an artist perform an underwater lantern-shadowplay-puppetshow as a fake 1960s documentary about ocean life. It was virtuosic and hysterical and had moments of terrible beauty. A Victorian lanternist could never have channelled an ecological zeitgeist so well.

And so I have tried, in my own fashion, to build a mixed-media lantern performance that is a history of the medium in its own time, at the turn of the nineteenth century, when new machines and new social structures were changing everything. I begin as a standard historical voice, but slowly slowly I let this slip into my natural voice, minor accented, angry, slightly too fast, tripping over itself, speaking back to the historians from below. I want to use this machine to pick away at the history of technology; to show how the stories of inventors and factory owners and brilliant men were always dubious. My research shows how the labour of anonymous workshop networks powered the birth of new technologies and new media.

We often paint the lantern as a middle-class toy. But it had teeth. It was a machine that spoke back to power. In the eighteenth century there were thousands of travelling lanternists presenting satires on the rich and critiquing the major political events of the day.

One of the slides I use is Pull Devil Pull Baker, the most famous of its day. This tells the story of a crooked baker who, having been caught fixing his scales, is dragged to hell. This can be interpreted as a simple morality story (and today it mostly is), but I like to re-run it three or four times, burrowing deeper into the socio-economic background that informs its emergence—famines, bread riots, corruption, exploitation, social change, insecurity, the rise of a new working-class consciousness. There are surviving broadside ballads that tell the same story, and so I sing. I use images and musical turns to discover how disruptive they could be in the hands of a radical lanternist.

Because the lantern was radical. Lanternists mocked the South Sea Bubble and romanticised the Highland rebellions and spread word of a rising Jacobinism. But modern performers, and much of its academic history, has pulled the teeth from the lantern. There is a very old current of working-class lantern culture that is still simmering somewhere inside it, that could be made to speak to a new era. In doing so we can understand a little bit about how the machines of the past felt living and powerful and vital to those that saw them. These things are not dead.


Written and performed by Arthur Meek. Music by Eva Prowse
UK première as part of Summerhall's Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, 1-26 August 2018.

Picture captions:

  1. A lecture with two lanterns at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford. Credit: National Science and Media Museum.

  2. An improved Phantasmagoria Lantern and slide from the middle of the nineteenth century.

  3. Pull Devil, Pull Baker. The story of a crooked baker who is dragged to hell.

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Using technology in theatre

Technology has been a part of theatre almost from the beginning: we might think of Ancient Greek drama as theatre at its purest, but the auditoria were carefully designed to focus the actors’ voices towards the audience. The later addition of masks were also a form of technology – it is believed that they acted as resonators for the actors, enhancing their voices and giving them a greater sense of presence. 

Technology became increasingly important in theatre, though, in the late 19th century – the possibilities of electric lighting and increasingly sophisticated stage machinery were even partially responsible for the emergence of the role of the director. With all those possibilities, someone needed to take charge of how they were deployed.  Nowadays, theatre without some sort of technology – whether it’s lighting, amplified sound, projections or music – is almost unimaginable. 

But how to use technology in theatre without it overwhelming the direct communication of actor to audience? How to avoid the problem encapsulated in the famous (and possibly apocryphal) dismissal of Camelot that “the audience came out humming the scenery”?  By making it essential to the telling of the story. In our 2014/15 show A Walk at the Edge of the World, we used projections in two concurrent ways: firstly, for the narrator to illustrate his description of the places he had visited, secondly to act as a visual sub-text. The first set of  images came from a 35mm slide projector which the narrator operated, the second set were projected behind him – at first supporting his narrative, then counterpointing it, then contradicting it. This was a theatrical way of employing the literary device of the unreliable narrator, and the story could only be fully understood by hearing the story and seeing the images at the same time. 

Our forthcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe production of Erewhon counterpoints two technologies from different eras. The magic lantern represents the era of the original book, while the iPhone is a technology of today. When playwright and performer Arthur Meek began looking at Samuel Butler’s 1872 book Erewhon as a source for a new play, he quickly recognised the connection between the 19th century magic lantern and PowerPoint, the medium he used in his 2016 fringe hit On the Conditions and Possibilities of Hillary Clinton Taking Me as Her Young Lover.  The magic lantern was the technology that led to cinema: a machine capable of projecting images large enough for hundreds of people to watch at the same time. Live-streaming from an iPhone is as new and startling to many of us today as mechanical magic lantern slides were to Butler and his contemporaries – why not use both technologies?  

In Butler’s book, technology has been outlawed in Erewhon for hundreds of years because its inhabitants feared it was taking over their lives. The book’s narrator is regarded with suspicion because he has a pocket watch, which is taken from him and destroyed. In the development of the play, we looked at how the Erewhonians’ fear of technology’s power mirrored our own current concerns, and the ubiquitous iPhone seemed to be the quintessence of that fear – the desirable, addictive piece of technology many of us spend far too much time staring at every day.  Our Erewhon employs a fair amount of technology - including live music from electronic instruments, which would have been unimaginable to Butler in the 1870s – but we hope that its supports and amplifys the storytelling rather than replacing it.

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Beware geeks bearing gifts

Erewhon, New Zealand playwright Arthur Meek’s collaboration with Edinburgh’s own Magnetic North, will have its UK premiere at Summerhall from 1 August.  The new multi-media play brings together technologies separated by a century in a very contemporary investigation of our relationship with artificial intelligence and machines.  

Adapted from Victorian science fiction novel Erewhon by Samuel Butler, Erewhon premiered at Christchurch Arts Festival in 2017. This imaginative production shines new light on Samuel Butler’s satirical novel about Victorian society. Published in 1872, Butler's fictional account tells the story of a young colonial British explorer who discovers a remote community living in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. They’re the descendants of a technologically-advanced culture that had to destroy all their machinery after it became artificially intelligent and malicious. What first appears to be a utopia - where happiness is paramount, and machinery and inventions are forbidden - soon turns out to be a society filled with hypocrisies and blind-spots just as severe as any other.

Read the full Erewhon media release (PDF).

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