The lanterns in the Museum’s collection date from the early 20th century, and were once used for teaching. It was thought that using visual aids would improve memory retention in students, and lanterns and slides provided a convenient way of producing images and displaying them to a large audience. In educational and scientific settings magic lanterns were more commonly referred to as ‘optical lanterns’.
More interesting still, a short article in the Review of Reviews (1890) reveals that Leeds may have been quite pioneering in its uptake of the magic lantern for use in lectures. The article, entitled ‘How to Utilise the Magic Lantern; Some Valuable Hints for to Teachers’, cites ‘The Optical Lantern as an Aid to Teaching’ by C.H. Bothamley, which gives details about the use of the lantern in classrooms at the Yorkshire College, now the University of Leeds. Bothamley refers to Professor Miall (then Professor of Biology), who promoted the use of the magic lantern for teaching students, and was able to demonstrate its successful use even in day-lit rooms. According to this article, “In the Yorkshire College almost every department has its lantern”, used to illustrate lectures on a range of “widely different subjects”. The educational slides in the Museum’s collection are representative of this variety, covering a wide range of topics, including the sciences, engineering, history, art, architecture, industries, geography and travel.
The optical lantern was of particular value to subjects such as biology and engineering because lectures on these subjects were highly dependent on illustrations. Furthermore, in science lectures, small specimens could be easily viewed by a large audience if they were projected using a lantern. Microscope attachments meant that even micro-organisms and microscopic structures could be seen. For example, in the Department of Textile Industries at the Yorkshire College, lanterns were used to display micro-photographs of fibres. Some specially designed scientific lanterns featured an open space in front of the condenser, so that live scientific experiments could be conducted and projected. There was also a second optical system that projected light upwards before projecting it forwards. This allowed specimens in flat dishes to be projected. Special ‘tank slides’ were used for displays requiring liquids, such as crystallised solutions, or to show creatures like tadpoles swimming in water.
The aforementioned Review of Reviews article states that “The example of Leeds has been followed on a smaller scale, but with very gratifying results, in several High Schools in the district” (Review of Reviews, 1890, p404). However, it is unclear if these examples are indicative of the wider use of lanterns in teaching primary and secondary level education. While the use of the magic lantern in school was much written about in education journals of the late nineteenth century, Elizabeth Foster has cited an article in The Teachers’ Aid that highlights “the lack of progress which was made in realising in schools the full potential of photography and projection”. Reasons given for this lack of progress include the conservatism of the teaching profession, the unwillingness of publishers and photographic firms to engage with the school market and the reluctance of teachers to embark on the necessary learning associated with the technology.
Nevertheless, the museum’s collection does contain some slides and equipment that once belonged to local secondary schools. The Carpenter & Westley astronomical slides, which were the subject of the ‘Shedding Light’ post, were used at Bradford Grammar School to teach pupils about planets and the solar system, and the Newton & Co. rack and pinion slides may have been used for similar purposes. These have now been digitised (see below) and we hope to eventually make them available throught the University’s Digital Library repository.
This post is adapted from an excerpt of the now completed magic lantern and slides object history files by Kiara White and Liz Stainforth.