Lantern slides factsheet

Learn about magic lanterns, lantern slides, and the history of image projection.
Magic lantern projector
Lantern slides and lantern slide case

John Davidson’s lantern slides are breathtaking. His collection includes photos of plants, mountain views and the early days of Vancouver and the University of British Columbia.

The magic lantern, later called the limelight or optical lantern, was a simple device that used slides to display an enlarged image on a white screen in a darkened room. The magic lantern, illuminated by an oil lamp, was the forerunner of the modern slide projector, which was later replaced by digital multimedia presentation software and hardware.

The use of projection images dates back to second-century China, but their use in the western society did not occur until much later, not until the seventeenth century. Entertaining — and often disrespectful — images painted on glass plates included combinations of the grotesque, the religious and the humorous.

In the Victorian period (1837–1901), magic lantern shows became a more respectable form of entertainment. At the same time, technical advancement made it possible to overlay one image onto another using two or more projectors.

The invention of photography and the use of photographic glass slides in the 1850s revolutionized the magic lantern. The photographic images in John Davidson’s collection retained a link to the earlier era, however. Davidson used watercolours to hand-tint many of his black and white slides, despite the fact that coloured photography had existed for a few decades.

Brink on some of Davidson’s photographs
Listen to the audio clip: “Lantern night” (streaming, 1.64 MB)

Stream the audio clip in an external player: “Lantern night” (MP3, 1.64 MB)
Read the transcript: “Lantern night

The magic lantern reached its peak in popularity in the 1880s and 1890s. They were almost as common in middle-class homes as television sets or computers are today. The most impressive professional shows in Europe involved as many as eight projection operators and attracted up to 2,000 people.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the introduction of the cinema and of photo reproduction in newspapers brought about a decline in the use of magic lanterns. In Britain, the industry died by the 1920s. However, in distant corners of the British Commonwealth, including British Columbia, magic-lantern use persisted until the 1930s.

A search of written sources will not reveal John Davidson as a prolific scientist. With the exception of his 1927 book, Conifers, Junipers and Yew: Gymnosperms of British Columbia, his writings were often short and for the popular press.

Davidson made his greatest contribution as an educator and a public speaker, and he had a high public profile in his day. Between 1911 and 1936, he introduced his joy of observing plants in the field to almost 1,200 individuals who took his UBC continuing education night class, many of whom later joined the Vancouver Natural History Society. He gave 213 public speeches to 104 different organizations ranging from civic service clubs to church groups to parent-teacher organizations. His theatrical presentations, illustrated with magic-lantern slides, brought local botanical study to thousands of people.


Tint some of John Davidson’s lantern slides

Further reading

David Robinson (1993). The Lantern Image: Iconography of the Magic Lantern, 1420-1880, E.G. Bond Limited, London.

Steve Humphries (1989). Victorian Britain Through the Magic Lantern, Sidgwick & Jackson, London.