Culture: There Is a Light That Never Dies; Birmingham's Close Connections with the Largely Forgotten History of the Magic Lantern Were Highlighted at an International Conference over the Weekend. Terry Grimley Reports
Byline: Terry Grimley
Before cinema and television, the magic lantern had no rivals in bringing visual enchantment and exotic images into people's lives.
Although it reigned supreme from the 18th century (when Joseph Priestley used it to illustrate his lectures) and throughout the 19th - until the Lumiere Brothers' first short films began to sound its death knell in the mid-1890s - the lantern's long and diverse contribution to cultural and social history is easily overlooked today.
Fortunately, it still has devotees around the world, and many of them were in Birmingham this weekend for the Magic Lantern Society's annual convention, marking the 25th anniversary of its foundation.
The event, which has previously been held in Padua, Turin and Paris, was visiting the city for the first time. But local enthusiast Mike Simkin, who organised an exhibition as part of the event at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, believes Birmingham's many connections with the magic lantern more than justify its selection as host.
'The lantern's connection with Birmingham is so rich,' he says. 'Lanterns were made here by Philip Carpenter, J Place, W Tylar and the Birmingham Photographic Company. Birmingham always had the wherewithal to make these things - the lens-makers, the brassfounders - it was all there.'
Then there were the travelling showmen who plied their trade here or, at a more elevated level, the 'philosophical lanternists' and their successors giving illustrated lectures at the Town Hall or the BMI, or the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists staging projected exhibitions of the latest artistic efforts of the Birmingham Photographic Society.
Edweard Muybridge, whose studies of human and animal movement, recorded by a line of consecutively triggered cameras, closely anticipated the birth of cinema, gave illustrated lectures on his work in Birmingham on three occasions. In Victorian times magic lantern technology was refined in the interests of entertainment to incorporate slides with moving parts - like the dubious comic one in which a rat pops into the mouth of a snoring man - and sophisticated transitional effects to convey sunset over New York harbour or the progress of a notorious theatre fire.
The theatre itself incorporated the magic lantern for special effects like Pepper's Ghost, while the history of projection in Birmingham continues well into the 20th century with the custom of displaying results in the city centre on election nights. …