History in the News


Magic Lanterns Magic Mirrors:
A Centennial Salute to Cinema


From an exhibition produced by the Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Like fun house mirrors, motion pictures over the past one hundred years have reflected, challenged, influenced, and altered our visions of ourselves and the world in which we live. Movies have taken us to foreign lands and cultures, plunged us into events that took place long before we were born, and even rocketed us into outer space. Today moving pictures are so much a part of modern life that it is hard to imagine a time before their invention.

In 1894 Thomas Edison introduced the Kinetoscope, an invention that let one person at a time view a continuous film reel. The next step was to project film, an achievement that automatically increased the size of audiences and the revenues from ticket sales. By 1895 the first projected motion pictures were delighting audiences the world over. To mark this centennial, we celebrate and salute moving pictures with this selection of early equipment, posters, and photographs from the Museum collections.

Picture + Motion = Motion Picture

Photography, invented in 1839, contributed to the development of motion pictures through its use of film to record images from real life.

Magic lantern, or slide, shows also played an important role, attracting young and old to schools, theaters,and homes to watch depictions of fables, legends, and current events. The magic lanterns projected hand-painted or photographic glass slides, which were inserted into the projector one at a time for small audiences to view together. A skilled projectionist could move them quickly, making the screen images appear to move.

Magic Lantern - "Gloria" projector made by Ernst Planck,Germany. Representative of projectors used in the late 19th century. (Photo by Rick Vargas)

With the advent of limelight, the intensity of the light source made it possible to project bigger images to a larger audience.

Limelight Burner - This oxygen-hydrogen burner, used with a lantern projector, has limelight in place. (Photo 71-2132 by Richard Farrar)

  • Magic Lantern Broadsides
  • Followed by:

  • Movement Frame By Frame
  • Projecting Moving Images
  • Early Motion Picture Advertisements

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    Exhibit Produced by the Photographic History Collection
    National Museum of American History

    Copyright 1995 Smithsonian Institution