Published in December 2005

A Thousand Years of AV? CONCLUSION
By Don Sutherland

A look back at the true beginnings of our industry.

In Parts 1 and 2 (October and November), Don Sutherland took us on a journey through the storied history of AV, reaching much farther back in time than many would have expected—back to the time of Leonardo da Vinci. This final chapter brings us from the mid-1800s to the 1990s.

All images, Author’s Collection, courtesy PRESS HERE! Archives.

While you could earn “$30.00 to $300.00 per week” using the Entertainment Supply Co. plan, the text gives no indication of what the plan entails. At the time, it could have been anything from a magic act to music lessons (both of which were offered by others), though the ad does own-up to “operating an outfit” that could be a machine, and maybe some kind of projector. Whatever it was, it resolves any question about whether the entertainment business was well on people’s minds, long before “the entertainment business” as we know it was formed.

Some scholars of the history of cinema debate whether D.W. Griffith or Melies gets credit for first cinema use of the dissolve, but it’s a minor achievement considering the ubiquity of dissolve shows before either gentleman was born. The double-lantern required no explanation in this McAllister ad, which ran in popular magazines such as Harper’s Monthly and the Atlantic throughout the 1890s. And why not? Look at all the things you could do with them!

    The principle of optically projecting an analog image is hardly a novelty in 2005, though the digital source and physical structure of the originating picture is certainly different. But certain differences in the construct of projected pictures arose many times in the centuries since the subject came up. The earliest images were painted on glass, but photography was a hit from the moment Daguerre announced it in 1839. It was only a question of time before someone tried to wed photographic images to magic lanterns.
    The first recorded attempt occurred when Daguerre’s invention was seven years old: 1846, the same year Childe is said to have perfected the dissolve in London. In Philadelphia, the Langenheim brothers, photographers, imported a projector from Vienna and gave public exhibitions of Daguerreotypes at the Merchants Exchange. Because Daguerreotypes on their copper plates do not transmit light, the Viennese import must have been an opaque projector, capable of projecting a reflection from a non-transparent image, but dimly at the very time magic lanterns were getting brighter.
    In 1848, the Langenheims concocted a transparent albumen photographic base that could be applied to glass, and hyalotypes were born. Not long after their public debut in 1850, they were called simply “transparent pictures” or “photographic slides.”
    The combination of photographic views and limelight was so compelling a scientific advancement that a primitive and superstitious name like “mag-ic lantern” no longer did justice. From about the 1860s, such super-projectors in biunial and triunial forms became famous as the Stereopticon. They did not project stereoscopic double-images—those were viewed in handheld devices called “stereoscopes,” the linear ancestors of the VCR and themselves the products of leading minds such as Sir David Brewster and Oliver Wendell Holmes—but a stereoscopic allusion was considered fair by promoters of the blossoming Stereopticon industry.
    "When two Magic Lanterns, illuminated with the Oxy-Hydrogen light are combined, the instrument is called ‘The Stereopticon,’ and is used principally for enlarging Photographic views of natural scenery. These views being ‘Sun Pictures,’ are correct in every detail of light, shade and perspective, and when brilliantly illuminated and properly magnified, stand out on the screen with almost a Stereoscopic effect.”
    With photographic slides of educational and scientific subjects growing inexpensive to mass produce, the manufacturers distanced themselves from their hand-painted heritage: “When we [now] speak of the lantern, we do not have reference to the cheap and ill-smelling nursery toy that has long been used for the exhibition of grotesque pictures that are neither edifying nor instructive,” intoned one manufacturer’s catalog.
    Among the earliest supporters of the Langenheims’ work, and quickly one of their best customers, was Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, director of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. A champion of a rising movement of “moral treatment” of the insane, which emphasized compassion at a time when manacles were customary, Kirkbride may have been the first to build a large library of photographic slides for practical applications. By 1862, he could write, “We now have over one thousand pictures for our lanterns...enabling us to give [the patients] something new at every evening.”
    Stereopticon manufacturers quickly recognized the opportunities for photographic slides in an increasingly scientific age, developing markets larger than the entertainment exhibitor had ever represented. Their catalogs, undoubtedly inspired by Kirkbride, routinely claimed that “Insane Asylums and other Public Institutions where those mentally or physically enfeebled are cared for, find the minds of the patients can be directed to any subject thought desirable, by properly selected pictures.”
    As evermore powerful lanterns were developed with finer and more versatile optics, picking up ever-expanding audiences and applications, Dr. Kirk-bride could savor something special. “It is interesting to note,” he wrote in 1863, “that everything under the name of stereopticon, etc., that is now shown to the intelligent audiences …was familiar to the patients of this hospital years before.”

Although described as a “magic lantern” in this early article from Scientific American, magic lanterns heretofore had been defined as projectors of transparent images. Davenport’s machine here projects opaque objects, such as postcards and photographic prints, albeit nowhere as brightly as transparent slides. Projectors of this type were quite popular during the 1910s and 1920s as “postcard projectors,” found uses in schools and libraries, and continue to be offered today to mostly a children’s market. They were never bright enough for serious, artistic photographic presentations, however, as the Langenheim Brothers of Philadelphia discovered, prompting their development in the 1850s of the transparent photographic slide.

Stereopticon Commercials and ‘TV’
    Advertising as an industry was a-borning in the 1880s, once railroads made the marketplace large enough to require it, and the stereopticon manufacturers were quick to seize upon merchants’ need for visibility. Stated their catalogs from the mid-1800s onward, “The business card of advertisers being displayed singly and repeatedly, while the interest of observers is sustained by interspersing beautiful views of scenery and comic pictures, makes an impression on the memory which is less likely to be forgotten than when seen in an ordinary printed circular, on a picture card, or in a newspaper column.” Even then, there were “media wars.”
    It was the educational stereopticon that firms such as Chas, Beseler and Bausch & Lomb emphasized. Their lines included apparatus for lantern slides and microscope slides as well, for the Projection Microscope.
    The idea of projecting data can be traced to projection clocks using magic lanterns, depicted by Johann Zahn in the mid 1680s. “Fahrenheit, of thermometer fame, devised a projection microscope before the year 1736 and exhibited it in Amsterdam,” boasted Bausch & Lomb, and from the 19th century onward, insects, botanical formations and living aquatic specimens in small tanks were to be found routinely in magic-lantern optical paths.
    In 1856, Benjamin Pike’s Jr. Descriptive Catalog cited the unique benefits of the educational lantern: “The very nature of the [educational] exhibition is calculated to excite the attention, and impress the imagination, and many a lesson in natural history, astronomy, &c., may be given and impressed on the mind in such a way as not to be forgotten, while the pupil supposes he is merely amused.”
    By 1920, Bausch & Lomb could point out that the lantern’s “serious recognition by educators is apparent in the fact that the New York State Educational Department maintains a Department of Visual Instruction, possessing a collection of more than 300,000 slides.”
    From witchcraft to higher education in just 200 years.
    Magazine engravings of the 1870s and ’80s show throngs gathered in the major squares of New York on Election Day night, watching tallies of the vote being compiled and projected on rear-projection screens atop roofs of tall buildings, visible to all from blocks away. They probably didn’t think to call it “television”—"distant seeing,” literally—but they might as well have. During the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th, all sorts of scientific-sounding names were applied to projection equipment besides Stereopticon, including Bal-opticon, Photo-Opticon, Radio-ptican, Sciopticon and Triplexicon.

By the late 1890s, you could buy a special device to place in front of your stereopticon lamp house, winding that new motion-picture film between spools. By the 1920s, the motion-picture projector was the main machine, though some continued to provide slide-projection facilities as early multimedia machines. Often the slides were used for local advertising and coming attractions. January 1 fell on a Saturday in two years during the 1920s: 1921 and 1927. We’re guessing it was on the later date that this John Ford western made its debut at the now-forgotten theater that wrote in the date on this lantern slide.

Nights at the Opera
    As the mechanical theater increasingly gathered devices to expand its repertoire of thrills, wouldn’t it investigate all contributions of the stereopticon? Projected scenery would seem desirable, so much easier to change between acts. And then there was the subject of special effects, which had attracted audiences since Robertson or before.
    Richard Wagner wrote less of spooks than of gods and the godlike, but he did so in the multimedia format of opera, where orchestra and stageplay merge. If anyone could find theatrical use for dissolving stereopticons, Richard Wagner would, in the theater he built for himself at Bayreuth. This was the Master’s own temple, where his Ring Cycle would make its debut. Constructed in the mid-1870s, the Festspielhaus could enjoy all the technological advantages coming into vogue as electrical usage spread.
    In his introduction to Bayreuth: The Early Years, Robert Hartford reported that “The Festspielhaus was finished only a few months before the opening of the Festival of 1876 [at which the Ring made its debut]…gas lighting had been installed at the very last minute; electric arc lamps were also used for spots and magic lantern projections.”
    By designing the interior of his theater as a frame for his dramas, Wagner added architecture to his presentation media. He’d insisted that the orchestra be concealed from view in a pit—an unusual practice—lest it distract the audience from the intended impact on stage. Conductor and musicians gave up their contributions to the visual performance and became the soundtrack, leaving an unoccupied space between stage and audience through which the music could float from mysterious origins. Wagner called this the “mystical abyss.”
    After the first performance of the Ring, Eduard Hanslick, the prominent music critic, gave this description of the physical theater. “There is no chandelier, no prompter’s box. Vision is equally good from every seat. One sees the proceedings on the stage without obstruction—and nothing else. At the beginning of a performance the auditorium is completely darkened; the brightly lighted stage, with neither spotlights nor footlights in evidence, appears like a brilliantly coloured picture in a dark frame. Many of the scenes have almost the effect of transparent pictures or views in a diorama. Wagner claims that ‘the scenic picture should appear to the spectator with the inapproachability of an apparition in a dream’.”

Critical Review
    The venue was good but, four days later, Hanslick wrote critically of the optical effects. “The Valkyries never appeared on horseback,” he complained, “they simply moved across the horizon in ineffective and indistinct dissolving views.”
    Wagner’s final opera was Parsifal, initially planned for performance at Bayreuth only. A decision was made to add moving scenery, reeling canvas between rollers on either side of the stage. This adaptation of the Panorama presented possibly the first instance of producers needing—and failing—to cut picture to track. The eyewitness recounting of the first tech rehearsal of Parsifal is given by Wagner’s friend and admirer, Englebert Humperdink (composer of Hansel and Gretel): “When the music came to an end the scenery went on—it was too long! The usually equable Brandt stood, watch in hand, noting just how much more music was needed as the scenery went rattling on.
     "Wagner let out a cry, ‘What, have I now to write music by the metre?’ There was nothing to be done about it—the machine could not run faster, the scenery could not be replaced, it had cost a ransom, and besides there was not time. Wagner was beside himself….”
    Humperdink quickly wrote transitional music to extend playing time, which the Master accepted, “and nobody at any of the public performances suspected that anywhere a bit of honest cobbling had been done on it.”
    On the contrary. An impression of the combined effects of Wagner’s theater, moving scenery and lantern slides at an 1882 performance of Parsifal was given by conductor Felix Weingartner in his autobiography: “Inspiration, orchestration, acoustics and in a negative sense the optical effects were here combined in a unique manner which would be possible nowhere else.
    "The curtain rises comparatively slowly. The stage becomes visible, unveiling a solemn, beautiful picture; Gurnemanz awakens, aroused by the distant trombones…When Gurnemanz prepared to accompany Parsifal to the Castle of the Grail, I was seized by a slight giddiness. What was happening? It seemed to me as if the whole house with the audience was moving. The transformation accomplished with the help of shifting scenery had begun and the illusion was complete. It seemed as if one were being borne aloft. At each side of the stage there were two or three pillars on which the appropriate dissolving views appeared successively until the last wall of rock disappeared and the nobly proportioned interior of the Castle of the Grail opened up before our eyes.”
    Richard Wagner was a luminary in his day and a giant in the history of music evermore, so close dissections of his staging techniques would be expected. It’s safe to conclude that other theatrical performances used the multimedia resources of the epoch following the adoption of the limelight, and judging from a remark published in The Art of Projection in 1893, they were used long before: “Previous to the introduction of the lantern at the Polytechnic, it was used in the production of the Flying Dutchman at the Adelphi Theatre, as far back as 1811….”
    Wagner wrote an opera, The Flying Dutchman, one whose ghostly encounters would have done well in the phantasmagoria’s tradition. But the program cited in 1811 could not have been the Wagner version, for the composer was not born for another two years; his Der fliegende Hollender was first performed in 1843.

If only we could be transported, to see what sort of “films & machines for animated photographs” Mr. F.L. Willard had at his Brooklyn shop in the 1890s. We can only try to imagine, though based on what we know of the time, it must have been a wonderful shop.

New Accessory for the Lantern
    The magic lantern, then, had participated in every form and level of presentation, from the itinerant performer of the early 18th century through the lantern showman of the late 19th, in churches, in schools, in asylums, in popular theatrical entertainments and in original Wagner operas. Its versatility came alive with the development of Childe’s dissolving views and their accouterments. Its versatility was such that, in the 1890s, it could enthuse all the more with another mechanical attachment to mount at its front, variously called the cinematograph or kinetescope, a transport device for the new motion-picture film, using the Stereopticon’s light for projection.
    The first cinematographs occupied a track, permitting swift removal from the optical path of the lamp, to get on with a slide show. It did not take long for the emphasis to be reversed. As the 20th century approached, cinema-tographs were being fitted with lamp housings of their own, and only a vestige of a slide projector in the form of small gate, condenser and lens bolted in place.
    Motion-picture projectors even past the 1920s sustained this bi-media design, using slides to post house rules on the screen when needed (“Ladies, please remove your hats!”), coming attractions and advertisements of local merchants whenever possible.
    The content of those first movies in the 1890s was no more sophisticated than a prairie fire. Where the masses once arrived at Panoramas to see the pictures move, now it was in parlors for moving pictures; in their novelty, they needed no further grace. Then the novelty ended, and moving pictures had to come up with other gimmicks such as plots, scripts and acting.
    Most historians make it seem axiomatic that moving pictures cascaded over the magic lantern because their technology was so vastly superior. Movies had another advantage less commonly cited, that they were rehearsed, planned and canned, sent out into the world with their mistakes left in the cutting room. A mediocre director could make an outstanding movie, if he let brighter people around him do their best. But a lanternist was a performance artist working without a safety net, nor anyplace to hide mediocrity and its results.
    "A lecturer is not an adjunct to a lantern entertainment,” advised The Art of Projection in 1893, “but the principle feature, upon him rests the responsibility of making or marring” the presentation. It might take 10 superlative showmen to undo the memory of a single bad one.

‘Death’ of the Slide Show
    This is where most historians describe the death of the slide show, but it did not die at all. It moved out of town. It set itself up in the university and in the schools, in the process it had begun in the 1850s, laying the groundwork for “educational,” “industrial” and “corporate” communications as we’ve finally come to know them.
    The historical record is unclear past 1920, regarding the status of dissolve shows. For, although glass lantern slides continued in prodigious use clear into the 1960s, the final biunial projector to reach the market appears to have been Bausch & Lomb’s Model BB Balopticon, introduced for educational uses in the early 1930s.
    It took Kodak, in the desire to market Carousel-style 35mm projectors, to reintroduce the concept in the late 1970s. By then, punched-tape control systems could automate the “live” performance of two, three or more projectors. Eventually, far more than three became routine—six-, nine-, 18-, 36-projector shows and even the occasional 80-projector show—glorified special-venue presentations with dazzling effects splayed across screens as big as a house. Some of the boldest, most innovative, artistically daring themes of all time were executed in the improbable settings of world’s fairs and expos, trade shows, major product launches and motivational meetings for corporate sales teams.
    The punched-tape control systems of the 1970s gave way to digital controllers of projectors as the PC began to appear in the 1980s. Companies with names such as AVL, Clear Light, Multivision Systems, Arion, Spindler and Sauppe, and Dataton became famous to an international community of high-tech presenters. Anyone who saw their work was as bowled over as those Stereopticon show reviewers in the 1850s, but the work remained in special venues, to be seen by private audiences. As it had been in the 1700s, the multimedia show of the late 20th century was appreciated by many, but unknown to the majority.
    By the mid-1990s, analog video had begun shoving aside such multi-unial presentations, mostly because the people ordering presentations were more familiar with videotape, thanks to their VCRs at home, than with the traditions that had set-in with the Langenheims, or Childe, or Philip-stahl, or Robertson, Kircher or Huygens or Chaucer. NTSC video finally yielded to digital technology, where computer software in a laptop computer could finally achieve the results of a roomful of projectors.
    Or could it? A survey of “slideshow” software programs today suggests that the visual impact of a triunial Stereopticon cannot be produced with today’s systems. Software developers seem to be mystified when told of the history and potentials of the projected image, preferring to provide simple templates for the random display of digital snapshots.
    Digital video authoring programs such as Premiere or Final Cut seem more promising for the extravagant effects and precision timing of an old-fashioned multi-image show. Any such program that can output a picture larger than VGA might reincarnate an industry that has yearned for a thousand years to combine still, animated and full-motion images into a mega-multimedia display. The tech we use today is the most advanced ever. But if history is any guide, its best years were deep in the past, and its most glorious applications are still in the future.

Don Sutherland was allied with the AMI (Association for Multi-Image, later Association for Multi-Media International), whose publication, Multi-Images, in 1991 carried the original article, “150 Years of Dissolves,” from which this material was developed. In addition to authoring a couple of thousand articles on photographic equipment and technique, he has reported on digital photography for Popular Photography magazine. He is also a maritime photographer. His work can be seen at; he can be contacted at

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