The Exhibition
"Camera Obscura - Laterna Magica - Cinema:
On the Prehistory of Cinematography"

by Dr. Kurt Denzer

In the historic cellar-vaults of the Kiel Municipal Museum, a small exhibition will recall the developmental history of cinematography up to the first public cinema show. The exhibition will demonstrate how philosophical deliberations, observations of nature, precision mechanical skills, knowledge of physiology, advances in chemistry, and the economic basis all contributed to developing the product that finally became the contemporary form of art and entertainment enjoyed by cinema-goers today. A wellknown metaphor found in "The State" (the 7th book by Plato, 427-347 B.C., in which he expounds his doctrine of ideas) describes the situation of people chained in a cave, with their backs facing the exit: they can see nothing but the shadows thrown by people and objects passing by in the sunlight outside. - This might also have been an early account of the situation in a projection hall - if it had existed at the time. Another passage from a book, "De rerum natura" by Lucretius (97-55 B.C.), mentions some little shadow-like images which, arranged in stepwise succession, form a movement.

This might be the story of a visiting galanty show by a troupe - but certainly not an early form of cinema show. There was still a long way to go. For instance, the light sources needed for luminous projection were not available. People of classical antiquity would use daylight to deal with their everyday chores. Performances in the large theatres did go on for several days, but still they were not evening or night shows. Everyday life adjusted itself to the light available from sun and moon. During a partial solar eclipse Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) was sitting in the shade of a plane tree. He observed how the partially eclipsed sun penetrated through a small hole in the treetop, and noticed that its reflections on the ground were laterally reversed. This recorded observation is undeniably a description of the imaging principle which was later - though not based on his observation - to be utilized in the camera obscura: A blacked-out room, where sunrays are entering through a little hole in the wall and captured on a screen, would allow observations of the sun without any risk of eye injuries. The fact that the images were reflected laterally reversed and upside down was at first ascribed to natural law. In the baroque period, this imaging principle was taken up by mountebanks who would boast that they could revive the dead and make them appear in front of the living: They left the excited relatives inside a dark room, waiting in suspense.

Meanwhile a disguised member of the troupe walked past outside, whose likeness would then appear on the opposite wall of the room, leaving the audience flabbergasted. In the 17th century this form of reproduction, technically enhanced with a lens and a mirror, was further developed into an imaging device, also utilized by Goethe for his landscape paintings. So we can see that both science, cheap entertainments and the fine arts made use of the camera obscura principle - a vital part of any film camera. However, until the 18th century, all these applications were restricted to using sunlight as their light source, as artificial light sources had not yet become sufficiently powerful for projection in larger rooms. Not until the 19th century did technological advances produce a light source powerful enough to enable projection shows in larger spaces that would satisfy the public. Certainly, large-scale light shows were arranged during the baroque period; but these - probably imports from the Far East - were highly artificial fireworks: Stage plays with a planned dramaturgic course, artful arrangement of images, and glowing colours. They gave living proof to the glory and omnipotence of their organizers and left thousands spellbound below the starlit nightly sky. In more closed circles the magic lantern with the flickering light would impress audiences in blacked-out rooms.

By the mid-17th century, the combination of the reversed camera obscura image with a lens and a lamp finally made the technique feasible for composing instructional and entertaining shows, consisting of small, coloured glass pictures projected on a wall. This marks the beginning of the projection era. However, being made of wood, most of these devices fell victims to their own light source. But the world`s first encyclopaedia "Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences des Arts et des Métiers", by d`Alembert and Diderot (1751-1780), has included a drawing, which confirms that the more recent metal laternae magicae had a design similar to that of their wooden predecessors. Available knowledge of our ancestors` mechanical achievements has mostly been left by ancient warfare: catapults, hoisting ramps, and chariots are familiar masterpieces of martial technology. in the world of theatre, the "deus ex machina" also provided a dramaturgical tool to handle a Gordian knot found in many classical stage plays: a divine figure who, from an elaborate scaffolding in the wings, would interfere in the events and solve problems on-stage. Other, and somewhat more sophisticated applications were scales and medical instruments, or the ingenious slot-machine constructed by Hero of Alexandria in the first century: when a temple-visitor inserted a coin, the machine dispensed holy water or opened the view of an ethereal divine figure.

We do have records from ancient times confirming the use of optical laws (e.g. the use of mirrors); but as for the pre-history of cinematography, they first became relevant in the 17th century, when mirrors were combined with precision mechanics and projection: The coloured laterna magica pictures were fitted into a frame, in which they covered and could easily slide against one another. Now an open-mouthed public could watch moving pictures, with ships slowly sliding across the screen, or a mill wheel in constant rotation. Such a show was concluded with a striking optical display of fireworks produced by means of the Chromatropic disc: a set of two colour circles in opposite rotation used to create magnificent colour swirls on the screen. From 1794, Robertson (in Paris) was using a laterna magica, mounted on rolls and placed behind a translucent screen, which he alternately approached and pulled back. He combined the technique with his moving pictures, to vary the size and pace of his ethereal appearances. In 1837 H.L. Child started using a double-image device to show pictures with successive graded dissolves, the so-called fog-pictures. Used to virtuosity, these projectors were even able to create an illusion of motion. Following the invention of photography, the small painted slides were replaced by photographs, according to purpose. If needed, these were hand-coloured, and as all these photographs were first taken on glass-plates, this technical invention presented no problems. The luminous quality of the pictures, together with the continuous reproduction of motion, and the amusing plots of the shows (e.g. "A Journey to the Nile") held aethetical appeal for the audience and provided a nice evening pastime.

In retrospect, it is hard to say whether the lack of true motion was generally thought to be a shortcoming. Anyhow the two laterna magica shows presented during the CINARCHEA will give visitors a chance to let themselves be captured by their special charme.

The history of mankind has evidence of numerous, parallel efforts to find ways to depict and present our world - for instruction and recreation, in an evocative manner, and whenever possible: make money. The stained-glass panes of the churches may very well be the first successful attempts to let the incident sunlight enhance the biblical tales and their characters. The 18th century peep shows forced the individual spectator to look at a picture with a fixed gaze, and without disturbance - and when back-projected, the picture could even simulate the gradual changes between day and night. In the 19th century, the Diorama or Giant circular panorama made the spectator feel right in the centre of events. The colour, size and position of the shown objects helped to increase the vivid sensation of reality, and the social context, the light and shade made the emotional impact of the show even more intense. During its further development into a double image projector, the painted glass slides of the laterna magica were replaced by photographs on celluloid strips which were projected in rapid succession.

Emil and Max Skladanowsky, two Berlin stallholders, invented a method resembling cinema projection which let them present short animated sequences (approx. 6 sec.) on a continuous loop.

However, perforated film material did not exist at this point, so after exposing and developing their films, they fitted the individual frames with shoe-eyes, for film transport, and re-joined them into two film strips to be run parallel. On November 1, 1985, they showed eight short sequences with their "bioscope" as the final item of the famous Berliner Wintergarten`s variety programme - the first public performance of its kind presented to a paying audience. However, their invention, possibly the ultimate in the history of laterna magica, ended up causing its own failure - because of the construction principle used for their double-projector, the fact that this stallholder family had no economical or industrial platform, and for competition from more sophisticated devices which were soon to emerge.

During this period, since the start of the 19th century, other researchers were busy studying a phenomenon that appeared to be a flaw in human eyesight and which in turn gave rise to another, entirely different development leading to present day cinematography. In Alexandria, and as far back as classical antiquity, Ptolemy (ca. 100-170) had observed that the human eye is unable to register the phases of a rapid movement as individual images. In the early 19th century this visual indolence was used to create a little toy, sold all over Europe - the thaumatrope: The face of a disc shows an empty cage, the reverse side a bird. When you put a string in either side and then rotate the disc along its transverse axis, the bird will appear to be sitting in the cage. Michael Faraday, British physicist (1791-1867) makes further investigations into the optical illusion associated with motion. He finally constructs a disc consisting of several toothed rims of different sizes which - when observed in front of a mirror - will rotate in opposite directions at a given speed, while the one in the middle seems to stand still. Faraday was only interested in the stroboscopic effect. But in 1832-33, without any mutual connection, Joseph Plateau (Belgium, 1801-1883) and Simon Stampfer (Austria, 1792-1864) were applying the phenomenon to develop the socalled "Wheel of Life", by inserting pictures in the visual gaps - at first painted ones, which were later replaced by photographs. (A few examples have been prepared for exhibition visitors to experiment with). The motion effect was clearly perceptible, but it remained a surprise-effect, since the size of the disc limited the duration of the show. Still, it was a major discovery that the indolence of the human eye can be tricked, by showing a sufficient number of frozen motion phases at a sufficient frame rate: The human eye will then perceive the series as continuous motion

This principle is applied in various practical constructions, such as the "Zoetrope" of William George Horner (1833). Horner paints the individual frames on a paper ribbon to be placed on the inside of a drum in horizontal motion. Viewing slits, cut out in the drum, separate each frame frome the next one. When standing at a given point looking through the viewing slits of the rotating drum, the observer will experience a sensation of continuous movement. This device was followed by many others, some with tongue-twisting names such as "Chronophotographoscope", "Getthemoneygraph", Tachyscope", or "Thaumototrope". From 1892, Emile Reynaud, the inventor of the praxisnoscope-theatre, undertook costly experiments in his Théatre Optique, in which he tried to combine the laterna magica and the wheel-of-life principles. He finally succeeded in producing a ribbon with up to 700 individual painted slides, and he used them to present a short story which, with ingenious repetitions, front- and back-projections would last up to fifteen minutes. Though his large-format pictures offered good projection quality, their arrangement as a series of glass slides did not hold promise for any further development. This only became a realistic prospect in 1888, when Goodwin took out a patent for a celluloid tape with a light-sensitive layer, the film. These days, Ottomar Anschütz, commissioned by the Prussian government, was recording manoeuvres and "shots" of flying storks with his photographical gun, and later presented the single photographs with his tachyscope or his "Schnellseher" (= quick-viewer. A slightly modified reconstruction of the Klinner Schnellseher is available for visitors to activate and try out).

Meanwhile Edward Muybridge (England) was conducting experiments in California, and so was Etienne Marey (France). They were both experimenting with snapshots which they composed into motion sequences consisting of individual frames. This only became possible when film sensitivity had been increased enough to allow shutter times of 1/50 secs or less. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was the first man to actually make use of the new film medium. He was already offering presentations of short films recorded in "Black Maria" (his studio) from the start of April 1894, though only using his cinetoscopes. These were peep-shows in which the spectator could watch continuous loop scenes at 40 frames/ second, after inserting a coin. He expected this type of utilization to be more promising, financially speaking, than the projection technique, so he did not bother to start constructing one. The films from his studio are among the very first, and became the basis of the 35 mm film format; however, they were never tried out in front of a cinema public. The Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, were the first men to experience such a spontaneous reaction. On February 13, 1895 they had filed a patent application for a device which could shoot 16 frames per second on a perforated film, transported by an eccentric film-gripping device. (In 1896 Oskar Meßter had the construction principle replaced by a Maltese cross and a double-wing diaphragm, which improved framing conditions, ensured more gentle film-transport, and enabled no-flicker shooting and reproduction). The camera was devised for copying as well as projection, meaning that its construction had an advantage over all other systems of its day, and its basic principle has remained unchanged till our time. On Dec.28, 1895 the Lumière brothers (whose father had a company producing optical equipment) arranged the first public film show with entrance fees at the Indian Salon of the Grand Café, Boulevard des Capucines. The projection device was identical with the one used for shooting the films: the cinematograph.

Dr. Kurt Denzer

Förderverein Cinarchea e. V. •  Universität Kiel  •  Postfach 141  •  D-24118 Kiel
Tel +49 (0431) 880-4941  •  Fax +49 (0431) 880-4940  •  agfilm@email.uni-kiel.de