New Research Shows Victorians Had Their Own Unique Version Of TV With Projectors Called ‘Magic Lanterns’

New research by Professor John Plunkett has shown that Victorians were exceedingly keen on 'magic lanterns' which created moving pictures for audiences.

New research shows Victorians had their own version of television with Magic Lanterns.
Nataliia Zhekova / Shutterstock

New research by Professor John Plunkett has shown that Victorians were exceedingly keen on 'magic lanterns' which created moving pictures for audiences.

While television may have been absent during the Victorian era, this didn’t stop Victorians from inventing their own unique spin on entertainment as new research shows that during the 1800s, projectors that were known as “magic lanterns” were once all the rage among polite society in England.

As Live Science reported, these magic lanterns were very much in keeping with the slide projectors that many of us today remember from our youth and could display moving images that were even in 3D, much to the delight of Victorian audiences everywhere.

Families who were considered to be middle class at the time were very much enamored with these magic lanterns and lined up in droves to rent them out for large social events like birthday parties and other holidays.

It is University of Exeter associate professor of English John Plunkett that we have to thank for the discovery of these magic lanterns, as Plunkett originally noticed them after wading through large amounts of advertisements in Victorian era newspapers. These advertisements indicated that Victorians routinely hired operators for the special lanterns and even rented shows along with them, much like yesterday’s slideshows, that could be attached to the magic lanterns and played for entertainment.

In fact, Plunkett even noted that the popularity of these lanterns was so immense at the time that Victorians even had their version of video stores so that audiences could pick their topic of choice to be played on them, according to a press release from the University of Exeter.

“From the 1840s onwards, opticians, stationers and photographers supplemented their business by hiring viewing devices and content out, many of the magic lanterns were also made and operated by the opticians. Just like Netflix or the many stores that hired out videos and PC games, this was a way of getting access to much more visual media than you could ever afford to buy.”

These magic lanterns were originally created back in the 1500s, but it was really the Victorians who first embraced them as a grand new age of technology. It was also convenient that photographers, opticians and even stationers stocked them in shops across England to be rented out, creating a mad frenzy for the devices, according to Professor Plunkett.

“We know Victorian families were enthralled by magic lanterns and stereoscopes, and now we know this drove a thriving commercial practice of hiring [or renting out] lanterns and slides. This really was the Netflix of its time.”

The very first advertisement for magic lanterns that Plunkett spotted in newspapers was from the year 1824, and the optician in London who was renting them out had advertised “The Magic Lantern sent out for an evening.” By the year 1834, another optician named Thomas Bale, who hailed from Bristol, was promising fun evenings filled with “astronomical, scriptural, natural history and comic slides.”

While the cost of renting magic lanterns was originally exorbitant and a luxury that only the middle classes could afford, as technology inevitably marched on, they slowly grew to be more affordable for the average person in England.

“Renting a lantern and slides was very much an expensive treat for the middle classes, especially if they wanted a lanternist, too. As the century went on, it became much more affordable.”

The new research on the prevalence of magic lanterns during the Victorian era was originally presented at the British Association for Victorian Studies 2018 Annual Conference that was held on August 29 at the University of Exeter.