Tag Archives: lectures

Leeds’ Hidden Visionary: Louis Compton Miall and Magic Lanterns


Professor Louis Compton Miall, Photo by E. E. Unwin

To most current students in Leeds, the name Louis Compton Miall would mean very little. A few might recognise the name from the LC Miall Building, home of the Faculty of Biological Sciences. Our team certainly had never heard of him before we were assigned to create an exhibition on magic lanterns and their relationship with the University of Leeds.

While carrying out research for the exhibition Lighting the Way: Leeds and the ‘Magic’ Lantern, we noticed that Miall’s name kept recurring. It soon became clear that Miall and his pioneering work with magic lanterns have long been overlooked. His innovations were not only crucial to the development of magic lanterns, but to teaching more generally. More on Miall later, first a quick history of the lanterns.

First developed in the 1600s by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, magic lanterns were an early form of projection equipment, which used a light source and a series of lenses to show images on a much larger scale than ever before. See this previous blog post for a more detailed discussion of the lanterns’ history and workings.

However, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that magic lanterns started to be used widely in education – although in this context they were often called ‘optical lanterns’ instead as ‘magic’ was deemed not serious enough. In a darkened hall, a lecturer would deliver a talk accompanied by slides displayed by a specially-trained ‘lanternist’. This format was used for the rest of the nineteenth century, despite the obvious drawback of teaching in the dark and the difficulty of coordination between the lecturer and lantern-operator.

Lantern Teaching

Magic Lantern in Use During a Biology Lecture
History & Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects. Object 20: Magic Lanterns

Here, the intervention of Louis Compton Miall was pivotal. He was Professor of Biology at The Yorkshire College and its successor the University of Leeds from 1876 to 1907. In order to display his biological specimens more easily to his students, he developed a more stable and powerful lantern which could broadcast images that were visible even with the lights on. Miall could then combine the lantern with specialist equipment such as microscopes or liquid-containing ‘tank slides’, allowing the live demonstration of experiments to an entire lecture hall.


A Nineteenth-Century Newton and Co. Combined Lantern and Microscope
A. Pringle, The Optical Lantern for Instruction and Amusement (1899)

Professor Miall also altered the set-up of the lantern so it could be operated by the lecturer unaided. He could now seamlessly teach and operate the lantern, without having to interrupt his lectures to communicate to an operator if there were any difficulties. In an article of May 1890 from the Review of Reviews entitled ‘How to Utilise the Magic Lantern; Some Valuable Hints for Teachers’, its author summarises the benefits of Miall’s method:

“The most novel and important points are that the slides are exhibited in a well-lighted room, and all the necessary manipulations are done by the lecturer or teacher without any difficulty.”

Today, in the age of the digital projector, most University staff structure their lectures and seminars around a PowerPoint presentation, which they use to illustrate their points and invite wider discussion. This teaching method, which is so taken for granted today, relies on the innovations of Professor Miall in allowing lecturers to control their own presentations and show them in a lit room.

Without Louis Compton Miall, the whole structure and teaching practices of higher education could thus have been radically different. It is time to recognise Miall’s achievements with magic lanterns at the University of Leeds, and shine a light on this largely unsung educational pioneer.

In the Lighting the Way exhibition, we track the evolution of magic lanterns at the University of Leeds, including highlighting the contributions of individuals such as Professor Miall and other educators to the development of the lanterns’ educational potential. Amongst the objects on display are a lantern produced by the famous Newton & Co. optics; various lenses and accessories used in lecture halls, such as an elbow polariscope; and a small sample of the Museum’s collection of around 5,000 lantern slides, including two mechanical astronomy slides.

Lighting the Way: Leeds and the ‘Magic’ Lantern has been curated by MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies and MA Arts Management and Heritage Studies students in collaboration with the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. It will be displayed in the Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science Common Room on the 1st floor of the Michael Sadler Building from 13 December 2018.

More information can be found on the use of magic lanterns in education at Leeds here.


Good things come in twenties (in HPS)

DSCF3548-Copy-604x1024This week my attention is turning to the contents of the Gillinson Room cases. As some of you might know, starting in January 2016, the Centre for HPS will be hosting a 20-month lecture series entitled “HPS in 20 objects”. At the risk of sounding like an advertiser; this series will use questions from HPS, along with objects from the Museum of HSTM to explore ideas and practices in science, technology and medicine from the ancient world to the present day. The lectures are for a public audience, and will assume no prior knowledge of the objects or subjects being discussed. Information about each object will be made available online, including podcasts and video recordings of each lecture. More information, dates, times etc will be posted here in the coming months: http://arts.leeds.ac.uk/museum-of-hstm/hpsi20o/

By happy coincidence the rearranging of cases in the Gillinson Room, along with the new additions brought up from the store, have given us twenty display spaces (plus two that don’t match but will have information about the museum in them). So we will be designing the displays around twenty questions asked by people working in PRHS. We will then explore *some* of the ways these questions could be addressed by our colleagues and/or how they have been tackled in the past.

The challenge now is to come up with appropriate questions which reflect the school and can be answered using our collection. Equally, if not more importantly, these objects (and the accompanying text) need to be interesting, engaging and visual. And fit into our cases – which aren’t huge.

So, a call out to staff and students working in PRHS, if there are any objects which you think are particularly representative of a field or your own work please let us know so we can think about incorporating them into the displays.


Leeds a Leading Light in Lanterns?

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.

1 2 3 4