Illumination Used in Magic Lantern Projectors

For about the first 200 years of the history of the Magic Lantern, oil lamps and candles were the only sources of light available. Their low light output did not easily allow to project images for larger audiences or over greater distances without losing much of image brightness and clarity.

Old ML Oil burnerIt was during the 19th century that other, better and more powerful light sources finally became available. Not only were Gas Light, and increasingly Kerosene Lamps replacing the old-time Oil Lamps, but improved burner designs, and eventually the development of much more powerful light sources significantly changed the Magic Lantern field.


LimelightBrnrDuring the Victorian age, both Limelight and the Arc Lamp made it possible to project images at a level of brightness, brilliance and clarity, never seen before. This made slide shows in front of very large audiences practical.

Equipped with such an illuminant, projectors could display images across relatively large distances, superimpose at almost any rate and level of brightness, and still allow for a precise and highly detailed image

Arc Lamps, a form of electric light, and Limelight, an intense light produced through the combustion of hydrogen and oxygen directed at a piece of lime, are technically more complex devices, and not simple to operate. They also could be quite dangerous. Fires, even explosions, could and did occasionally occur.

Newton Oil Kerosene Burner
Newton Oil Kerosene Burner

Kerosene Lamps on the other hand were not only easy to use and less dangerous, but also less expensive, and easily transportable. For these reasons Kerosene Lamps were common in projectors used for home projection, and other small to medium size events, like for example meetings at town halls, church congregations, missions, etc.

Although Kerosene Lamps, Limelight, Arc Lamps, and even Gas Light were all still in use for a variety of projectors up until the middle of the 20th century, they were more or less gradually being replaced by the Electric Light Bulb from the beginning of the century onward.

Besides the Electric Light Bulb, only Arc Lamps remained. Their improved versions became the principal lighting device for all projectors. Modern versions of Arc Lamps are still used in some of today’s movie projectors.