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In the Days Before PowerPoint…

The November issue of the American Psychological Association‘s Monitor on Psychology is now online. This month’s Time Capsule section looks at the use of the magic lantern in psychology courses in the late-nineteenth century. As author Laurence Smith informs us,

Prominent among the historical precursors of today’s PowerPoint presentations is the “magic lantern,” which came into wide use in classrooms of the late 19th century. An early sort of slide projector dating to the 17th century, the magic lantern contained a light source (a gas flame or electric bulb) that transilluminated large glass slides bearing images that were projected through lenses onto large cloth screens. Some versions, such as the “episcope,” could project laboratory instruments such as kymographs and other opaque objects onto screens, thus allowing instructors to present live scientific phenomena to large audiences.

Smith goes on to describe the use of the magic lantern by such early luminaries as Wilhelm Wundt, E. B. Titchener, and Edward Scripture. He writes,

By the time the new psychology reached American shores in the late 1800s, college students had developed a strong appetite for image-driven science. These students had many attractive options for sciences to pursue, and psychology professors recognized that their new and still-marginal discipline needed to match the pedagogical flair of the older sciences. In 1897, Scripture wrote that “comparisons are constantly drawn between the various departments, and merely as a matter of self-preservation the psychological laboratory must offer courses equal in attractiveness and value to those of physics, chemistry and biology. A lecture room with at least a single lantern … should be provided. … The students are no longer a ‘class’ to be taught; they are an ‘audience’ that must be led.”

Thus the magic lantern, which arrived from Germany in tandem with scientific psychology, was seen as a crucial means of attracting the student following that would help psychology survive against the competition of entrenched sciences.

The full article, “Multimedia 1890s,” can be read online here.

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