Before There Was Streaming, the Victorians Had “Magic Lanterns”

New research finds these early image projectors, which brought world landmarks, fairytale favorites to life, were a regular part of middle-class life

A popular 19th-century slide depicts rats jumping into the throat of a sleeping man Wikimedia Commons

Beginning in the early 1800s, British “lanternists” brought projections of painted or photographed images to life via sound effects, narration and various personal touches. These 3D slides and moving sequences, which were similar to modern-day GIFs, quickly became a staple of Victorian entertainment.

Live Sciences Laura Geggel notes that historians have long believed such “magic lanterns” were an exclusively upper-class treat, but findings presented at the British Association for Victorian Studies’ Annual Conference—held at the University of Exeter between August 29 and 31— suggest otherwise. According to research conducted by Exeter’s John Plunkett, magic lanterns were a regular part of middle-class life, popping up during birthday parties, holidays and social gatherings.

As Katy Scott reports for CNN, this meant that nearly 200 years before streaming services made it possible to delve into fantastical tales of fictional worlds and panoramic tours of Earth’s most stunning sights from the comfort of one’s own living room, sophisticated visions were commonly enjoyed in the Victorian home.

Plunkett relied on Victorian newspaper advertisements to gauge the popularity and availability of the devices. As he tells Geggel, opticians, photographers and stationery suppliers started renting out magic lanterns during the mid-1800s, enabling Victorians to enjoy the visual spectacle at a reasonable price.

“Hiring a lantern and slides was [initially] very much an expensive treat for the middle classes, especially if they wanted a lanternist too,” Plunkett says in a statement. “As the century went on it became much more affordable. After 1880, local businesses were pushed out of the market as the lantern slide industry became more centralised."

The earliest advert Plunkett spotted dated to 1824. Later notices featured detailed descriptions of the slides ready for hire, including a watchmaker and optician’s Christmas 1843 advertisement of “Astronomical, Scriptural, Natural History and Comic Slides” and a Plymouth-based singer and comedian’s 1864 notice of his selection of “views from China, Japan [and] New Zealand.”

Although these more conventional offerings proved crowd favorites, Plunkett tells CNN’s Scott that the most popular slide of the century was a grotesque moving image of a “sleeping man with an enormous beard in pajamas, and as he was snoring and opening his mouth there was a whole series of rats going down his throat into his stomach.”

To achieve this effect, a lanternist relied on a two-lens device that projected multiple images onto the same spot to create the illusion that the scenes were dissolving into one another. Live Science’s Geggel reports that such complexity was typical of magic lanterns: When the device was first introduced, lanternists used a candle to illuminate slides, but as the century continued, operators switched to a light generated by burning mineral lime, oxygen and hydrogen (hence the phrase “in the limelight”). This noxious combination of chemicals posed a significant safety threat, Plunkett tells Geggel, and “there are quite a few reports of accidents or things exploding.”

By the mid-19th century, stereoscopes—handheld viewers similar to modern virtual reality headsets, as Clive Thompson notes for Smithsonian—had begun outshining magic lanterns. These devices provided users with 3D views of scenes ranging from European castles to the cavernous depths of the Grand Canyon and operated without the hassle of explosive magic lanterns. Still, the magic lantern didn’t completely disappear: According to a press release, the slide projectors popularized during the mid-20th century trace their origins to the Victorian device. Even better, the University of Exeter is working to digitize thousands of magic lantern slides, ensuring they’re available to enchant the public for generations to come.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.