Illuminating the past
29 October 2007
A remarkable collection of picture stories, that fascinated audiences before the invention of the movie camera, has been restored to life thanks to the University and technical support provided by Technical Advisory Service for Images.
In the early years the optical system in lanterns was rather crude, consisting of a light source, usually an oil lamp, and a single lens to focus the picture onto a screen. Later, as an under-standing of optics was developed, it was applied to the art of projection, resulting in ever-sharper images. At much the same time it was discovered that if lime was heated to a sufficiently high temperature it could produce a brilliant white light. The discovery was first employed by the military to signal over vast distances, but the theatre quickly adopted the device for spot lights (hence the term ‘in the limelight’) and its effectiveness as a magic lantern illuminant was soon exploited. A combustible gas (hydrogen, coal gas or ether) and oxygen were employed to achieve a high temperature, causing the lime to ignite. Needless to say, this operation was dangerous in the extreme and many fatal accidents occurred.
Lantern entertainment was diverse. In the early part of the 19th century there was a thriving trade of itinerant projectionists who travelled around the country with their magic lanterns and a large number of slides, putting on shows in towns and villages. But temperance crusades, illustrated sermons and missionary work, theatrical entertainment, current events and popular education also exploited the technology. Readings of recitations, stories or lectures would accompany the slide show, much like any PowerPoint presentation today.
Creating both online and offline access to this amazingly important resource
The University’s Theatre Collection archives contain 400 magic lantern slides, which, because of their fragile condition, have not been accessible until now. The slides fall into two categories. The first contains sets of story slides, mostly photographs that have been hand-coloured, dating from 1880 to 1900. These have evocative titles such as Christmas in Paradise and Scrub, the Workhouse Boy. The second category contains mostly black-and-white reference and lecture slides dating from 1910 to 1950. The Illumination Project has enabled the conservation, cataloguing and digital preservation of all these slides, creating both online and offline access to this amazingly important visual resource.
The construction of a lantern slide consists of two sheets of square glass between which the photographic image is sandwiched. The glass is bound together by tape around all four edges. When scanning a slide for the first time it was discovered that only the image as projected was captured. Whilst the image was good, it didn’t reflect the slide as an object. Magic lantern slides hold many clues to their history in the way in which they are made – labels and titles adorn the glass, and taping can vary from one collection to another – thus it was important to ensure this information was recorded. The decision was therefore made to take two scans of the hand-coloured slides. The ‘object’ scan gave a clear idea of the slide’s construction, condition and labelling. However, the slide’s photographic image became fuzzy due to the scanner light penetrating the two layers of glass and causing a shadow effect against the panel in the lid. The fuzziness was resolved and the image became clear when doing a second scan with the panel removed using the backlight (to shine through the transparent areas of the slide), giving a copy of what would have been the projected image. They are now available for viewing and free educational use via the Theatre Collection’s website, where this important collection is preserved for posterity.