A week or so ago, I was at a neighbour’s 60th birthday party and I met a man who collects magic lanterns.  The lanterns are the important precursors of the slide projectors that kids of baby boomers, like me, will recall, wearily, from our youths.  Here’s a magic lantern:


When I was a kid, we’d travel from Australia to the US and Britain periodically and my dad would take dozens of reels of slide film.


Dad had many strengths, but narrating a lengthy slide show of poorly-lit Cotswolds houses, British cathedrals and Boston skyscrapers in the rain wasn’t one of them.  One carousel change in, complete with resetting all the slides to make sure they were the right way up, and rectifying a jam, and his talk was generally drowned out by the snoring of his old friend Howard Crozier after a Carlton Draught and a Vol-au-Vent too many.


Anyway, here’s what I learned at the party and subsequently:

The magic lanterns were beautiful things.  They emerged in the Northern Renaissance.  Images were painted onto glass slides and then projected by the light of candles.  The magic lantern used a concave mirror in front of a light source to direct as much of the light as possible through a small rectangular sheet of glass on which the image to be projected was drawn or painted, and onward into a lens at the front.  The lens was adjusted to focus the plane of the slide at the distance of the projection screen, which was often just a white wall.


Originally the pictures were hand painted on glass slides. Initially figures were rendered with black paint but soon transparent colours were also used.   Not long after the introduction of photography in 1839 photographic images could be projected with magic lanterns.


Apart from sunlight, the only light sources available early on were candles and oil lamps, which were inefficient and produced very dim projected images. The invention of the Argand lamp in the 1790s helped to make the images brighter. The invention of limelight in the 1820s made them very much brighter.

The mention of limelight, with all its associations with fame, really caught my attention.

Limelight, it turns out, is produced by feeding oxygen and hydrogen gas along separate tubes to a cylinder of quicklime, which burns with an intense light.  Mixing the gases is extremely dangerous.


In the early days the gas would be bought in bags.  Tubes were attached to the bags, through which the gas would be fed.  To ensure the gas moved in the right direction along the tubes, weights were put on top of the bags.  Often, these weights were planks of wood on which sat small boys.  This was all fine unless one of the boys got fidgety and jumped off. If they did, the gases would travel in the wrong direction and there would be a big explosion.  It wasn’t uncommon for there to be a number of deaths.  Thinking about this further, that mix of hydrogen and oxygen is how rockets are fuelled.  Men went to the Moon thanks to a modern version of limelight.

It made me think about fame and its fragility and how perfect (with this new understanding of the word and its origin) limelight is as a term to describe it.  Approach the limelight with care and, above all, make sure that whoever is controlling your feed of oxygen and hydrogen is someone you can really trust.  If not, you might get a flash of publicity, but, er, not much in the way of enduring benefit.


PS: I almost forgot – here’s the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players doing ‘Mountain Trip to Japan’ based on random slides that they found.  It’s very good – and I’m grateful to my friend Kellie for introducing me to them…