Arthur E. Beet Magic Lantern Slide Collection

Arthur Edgar Beet was a former academic at the University of Sheffield, lecturing on fuel technology in the Applied Science Department until the 1960s, the decade that marked his death. But more significantly as far as this collection is concerned, he also worked as an amateur local historian; an occupation in which he developed an enthusiasm for collecting magic lantern slides and early projection paraphernalia. Such was his evident local renown for this pursuit, it was reported in a Sheffield Telegraph article from 1954 that eight-hundred slides and a late nineteenth-century double lantern projector had been passed on to him by John Arthur Southern. The report tells us that Southern, after hearing of Beet’s hobby sometime before, decided to pass his collection on to him upon his death.

After Beet died in 1968, his son, A. D. H. Beet, contacted the University offering to donate his late father’s collection of lantern slides. These became part of the Archives of Cultural Tradition, originally located in the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition (NATCECT), and were transferred to the University Library’s Special Collections Department in 2008.

The collection now consists of just under 2500 lantern slides. Amassed are slides on a remarkable diversity of subjects: there are around 300 black and white photographic slides of various places in Sheffield taken in the late nineteenth-century; slide collections depicting scenes from children’s stories such as Dick Whittington and Old Mother Hubbard, designed to accompany a reading of the tales; illustrated scenes from Victorian melodramas and sentimental stories which were used by Christian missionary organisations like the Church Army; portraits of a number of historical statesmen, military leaders and leading historical figures. The collection also includes lantern slides on the First World War, the Second Anglo-Boer War, Shakespeare Country, early twentieth-century advertisements, London landmarks and photographic slides of European cities, towns and natural landscapes.

In addition to the collection’s variety of content, there is an equally interesting variety of slide types. The bulk of the collection is made up of the standard UK lantern slide, which is 31/4 x 31/4 inches in size. These are made from two sheets of glass: one sheet has one side marked with the image, and the other sheet is used to cover and protect it. The two sheets are held together with a binding tape placed around the edges of the glass. But the collection also contains a wide range of panorama slides, single slipper slides, double slipper slides, glass pivot slides, rackwork slides and rare and unique homemade glass slides.

Venice 2Dick 2

Two standard glass lantern slides. The one on the left shows an image of a gondolier in Venice, created from a photographic transparency. On the right is a slide depicting a scene from Dick Whittington. The picture image was produced through a transfer process.

Panorama slides

Panoramic lantern slides. The top slide shows five comical scenes of two men finding a larger man sleeping on the deck of a ship, and proceed to use him as a card table. The lower slide contains four separate tableaux, showing children painting, playing a concertina, and dancing.

Sheffield Flood

A handmade and hand-painted glass slide. The slide depicts a scene from the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864. It is not known who the maker was or when these slides were made, but it is likely that they are contemporary with the event, and possibly eye-witness impressions.

Rackwork slide

A rackwork slide. The text reads: “No. 4. This diagram illustrates the apparent direct and retrograde motion of Venus and Mercury; and also their stationary appearance.” Most of the rackwork slides in the collection illustrate astronomical phenomena, and would have been used as a pedagogic aid in science lectures. The mechanical feature of the slide is operated by the handle at the bottom of the slide in the image.

dog 2

Two phases of a single slipper slide. The slide shows a woman instructing a dog to jump through a hoop as part of a show. Slipper slides are made of two pieces of glass, where one is moveable. The moveable “slipper” slide is painted with two different stages of movement which, when operated, cover and uncover parts of the fixed piece of glass.

What is the magic lantern?

The magic lantern is in essence very similar to a modern projector: it produces a projected image using light, the object you want to project, an instrument to create the image, and a screen on which to project it. In fact, it can be treated as the precursor to the modern image projector.

The earliest known extant record of a magic lantern is from c. 1420 in the technological treatise Liber Instrumentorum written by the renaissance engineer Giovanni de Fontana. In this treatise there is an illustration of a person holding a lantern-like object which appears to be projecting an image of the devil on the wall. As the years went by, the rudimentary design of this early magic lantern underwent a process of improvement and innovation. Inventors and scientists experimented with different light sources in an effort to improve the quality of images. Great strides in image quality were made with the development of lenses, giving the projection more focus. The evolution of the magic lantern in many respects can be understood as a by-product of the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, as such progress found a practical application in early projection technology.

As often with scientific discovery and technological advance, the outcome finds its way into popular usage. And the magic lantern was no different in this regard. With better lenses, mirrors and light sources – as well as an ever broadening availability of the instruments – magic lantern performances could be given as a form of entertainment (one can imagine that the sheer novelty of the performance was a source of fascination in itself) and instruction.

The golden age of the magic lantern?

The decade from 1890-1900 witnessed what could be considered the high-point in the development of the magic lantern. A number of manufacturers, such as Newton & Co, Primus, York & Son, were rolling out large quantities of slides for commercial, recreational, religious and educational exhibitions. But this high-point is most strongly marked by the foundation of the Optical Magic Lantern Journal (OMLJ), whose first number was published on June 15 1889. The OMLJ ran for 160 issues until July 1903 – a date that marks the beginning of the end of the magic lantern’s relevance as it is superseded by the technological superiority of the moving picture. The journal was published, in the words of its inaugural editorial, “to fill a void in our serial literature devoted to popular science.” It evidently recognised the rising stock of the magic lantern in this period from “a mere toy” in the past to “one of the best recognised agencies in education, and an instructive instrument in applied science” in the late 1880s.

The OMLJ’s pages were filled with technical advice aimed at fellow magic lantern experts and enthusiasts, sharing tips on how to produce novel dissolving effects, how to make the most efficient reflector to maximise light energy, and even included a rather rigorous mathematical formulae to determine the optimum distance between the lantern and the screen for image quality. The journal was also targeted at novices and newcomers, running a series of articles through its first volume on “The Magic Lantern: Its Construction, Illumination, Optics and Uses.” Interestingly, the magic lantern exhibitions, shows and performances were a valuable medium for budding photographers to expose their work to a wider audience (the OMLJ’s full title notes that it is also a journal for the “Photographic Enlarger”). However, the optical innovations recorded and circulated in the journal, combined with the close relationship the magic lantern had with photography, contributed as much to its demise as it did to its rise in popularity in the final decade of the nineteenth-century. The OMLJ published its last number, without ceremony, in July 1903: a date that marks the beginning of the end of the magic lantern’s relevance as it was superseded by the technological superiority of the moving picture.

References and further reading

Lucerna database

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