Lantern Slides and Their Magical Mechanical Patterns

full view

Cotsen 38582

Above is a hand-operated mechanical magic lantern slide. We might describe it as “kaleidoscopic” but it’s technically not a kaleidoscope, It’s a chromatrope. The device doesn’t contain a cylinder with mirrors that reflect an image in order to create the changing patterns. Instead, the slide is in fact 2 painted slides. As one turns the brass and wood handle, the brass rim rotates the 2 slides in opposite directions creating repeating designs.

Many companies were creating mechanical magic lantern slides it the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Judging by its condition, our chromatrope slide was probably made in the 20th Century, but it reveals no indication of its manufacturer.

Regardless of who made it, our mechanical slide is a great example of a chromatrope with a very simple, but stunning visual pattern.

See for yourself by clicking the image below!  And there are more magic lantern slides on the Cotsen virtual exhibitions page…


click the image in order to view a moving .gif

Watch A Magic Lantern Show Here!

A few weeks ago our friends Isabella Palowitch and her daughter Alessia Arregui came to visit for a special demonstration. Isabella is the graphic designer behind Artisa LLC here in Princeton and she has done beautiful designs for Cotsen events and our virtual exhibits. Alessia is a senior at Rhode Island School of Design working on sculpture with glass materials.

The pair expressed interest in seeing optical material for some out-of-the-box inspiration. Since Cotsen has a large collection of magic lanterns and accompanying slides, we gathered some of this material for a little show and tell.

Magic lanterns are precursors to modern projectors. Invented as early as the 17th Century (and popular into the early 20th Century), magic lanterns magnify and project hand painted images on glass slides. With a light source behind the slide and a lens in front, the slides are loading in upside down and backwards, since the lens flips the image.


Cotsen 19169

Iron and brass magic lantern (London : WB & Sons, [circa 1880’s]) (Cotsen 19169).


Retrofitted for a modern light bulb, we were able to plug in this projector for a demonstration.


Cotsen 32949, serie 91, no.5. (Germany : Projection für Alle, before 1900)

The above slide was able to fit into the magic lantern’s duel loading wooden frame (this kind of slide frame allows for simple animation by quickly moving between 2 slides). From a collection of German fairy tale slides called Im Reiche der Märchen  (In the Realm of Fairy tales), this particular slide is a scene from the end of Rotkäppchen (Little Red Riding Hood) with the defeated wolf in the foreground. The caption at the bottom reads: “Die Grossmutter stärckt sich mit Kuchen und Wein” (The grandmother is strengthened with cake and wine).


Though it’s not the clearest projection, considering that the equipment is nearly 150 years old I think it comes out pretty well.

Closer and clearer shot of the projected image

A closer (and a little clearer) shot of the projected image.

Thanks again to Isabella and Alessia for stopping by. I think we all enjoyed the rare chance of projecting a little piece of the past.

If you want to know more about magic lanterns (including related material and book illustrations) check out our virtual exhibition on the main Cotsen website: Magic Lantern.