Magic Shadows: The Story of the Origin of Motion Pictures

Martin Quigley, Jr.

Preview: Issue 1 of 18


The art of magic shadows, which just before the dawn of the twentieth century evolved into the modern motion picture, was born three centuries ago, at Rome. There Athanasius Kircher, a German priest, first showed his invention, the magic lantern, to friends, and enemies, at the Collegio Romano, where he was a professor of mathematics.

The world premiere of the first real "magic shadow" performance passed without public notice. In those days there were no press agents or publicists. There were no newspapers. The people did not care what the nobles and scholars were doing in their idle moments; the intellectuals paid little attention to the people.

History has not recorded the day and month in which Kircher presented his projector, the fundamental instrument of all screen shows, then and now. The occasion can be set only approximately--some time in the year 1644 or 1645. The hour of the performance presumably was in the evening, for the light and shadow pictures had to be shown in darkness, just as today films must be exhibited in darkened theatres.

We may be sure that the score or more of invited guests--Romans and distinguished foreigners--eagerly accepted an opportunity to see what Kircher was up to. Rome had been buzzing with rumors. The energetic little Jesuit priest who earned for himself the title, "Doctor of a Hundred Arts," had even been suspected of necromancy and working in league with the devil. After the showing of the magic lantern and its projected pictures some were certain that he practiced the "black arts."

The audience for the first screen performance was as distinguished as any that has since graced a Hollywood production. Other professors of the Roman College were there to note for themselves on which one of his "hundred arts" Kircher had been10 busy. These men were among the most learned in Europe and had made the Jesuit University, established in 1582, already an influence in all circles of thought. A selected group of students, young Romans of noble birth, surely were also invited. Until the hour of the demonstration, these stood outside in the large Piazza di Collegio Romano before the main entrance. Three centuries later, from June, 1944 to late 1945, American Army MPs raced through this same Piazza on jeeps and motorcycles to their headquarters in Rome, just across the square from the entrance to the Collegio Romano.

Just at the appointed hour for Kircher's show, a few distinguished monsignori, in flowing purple were driven to the entrance in their carriages with mounted escort. Perhaps, too, a hush went through the small group, assembled in an upper hall, when a Prince of the Church, such as Cardinal Barberini who had summoned Kircher to Rome a decade before, came to see for himself. After all the monsignori and other visitors had been greeted with ceremony and salutation in keeping with their rank, the candles and lamps were extinguished; Kircher slipped behind a curtain or partition where his projector was concealed and the first light and shadow screen show was on.

For a moment Kircher's audience could see nothing. Then slowly their eyes became accustomed to the darkness and a faint light appeared on a white surface set up in front of the few rows of seats. As the flames in Kircher's lantern began to burn more brightly and he adjusted the crude projection system, the picture of his first glass slide was thrown upon the screen.

The young men with keen eyesight were the first to note that the light and shadow on the screen, like some ghostly figment, began to take form into a recognizable picture. Then the older ecclesiastics saw or thought they saw. The incredulous murmured prayerful ejaculations. The wonder increased as successive pictures were projected. Kircher was enough of a showman to use pictures which would entertain and amaze. He included animal drawings, artistic designs and, to taunt those who thought he was dabbling in necromancy, pictures of the devil. Prudence was not one of his "hundred arts."

We may be amused now at the disbelief of Kircher's first audience. But by trying to place ourselves in that hall of the Roman College, three centuries ago, it is easy to realize the difficulties. Nothing like Kircher's show had ever been presented before. He had chained light and shadow, but the suspicion was held by some of the spectators that there was dark magic about it all and that Kircher had dabbled in the "black arts."

The first audience congratulated Kircher at the end of the performance, but some went away wondering, dubious. Years later, Kircher wrote in his autobiography, "New accusations piled up and my critics said I should devote my whole life to developing mathematics."

Two and a half centuries later, the screen art of magic shadow projection came to life in the motion picture. This was quite a different premiere. But Kircher would have recognized the device as an improvement on and development of his magic lantern. He, and hundreds who came after him, had tried to capture the animation of life in light and shadow pictures. Full success was not possible until a later date because the necessary materials were not available until near the end of the nineteenth century.

The scene of the most significant motion picture premiere was at Koster & Bial's Music Hall, 34th Street, New York, which stood on the site now occupied by the R. H. Macy department store. The time was April 23, 1896. But in contrast to Kircher's premiere, though "Thomas A. Edison's Latest Marvel--the Vitascope" had featured billing on the show, it was not the only entertainment on the program. Albert Bial, manager, preceded the showing of the motion pictures with a half-dozen acts of vaudeville. There were the Russian clown, eccentric dancer, athletic and gymnastic comedian, singers and actors and actresses. But the movies stole that show and, in little more than a decade, became staple entertainment in tens of thousands of theatres all over the world.

The special top hat and silk tie audience at Koster & Bial's Music Hall that Spring evening a half-century ago was treated to a selection of short films which ran only a few moments each: "Sea Waves", "Umbrella Dance", "The Barber Shop", "Burlesque Boxing", "Monroe Doctrine", "A Boxing Bout", "Venice, Showing Gondolas", "Kaiser Wilhelm, Reviewing His Troops", "Skirt Dance", "Butterfly Dance", "The Bar Room" and "Cuba Libre".

Thomas Armat, the inventor of the projector which had been built by Edison, supervised projection of those first screen motion pictures shown on Broadway. We can well imagine that Kircher12 was looking over his shoulder, delighted that his work started 250 years before had been brought to the triumph of the living moving picture.

The great Edison was in a box at the Music Hall that evening and he, too, was glad that the New York audience of first nighters so well received the large screen motion pictures. A few years before, his Kinetograph camera and his Kinetoscope peep-hole viewer had presented motion pictures. But as Kircher in the 17th century wanted his pictures life-size on the screen, so did the public of the Nineties.

Kircher and Edison do not stand alone in the parade of pioneers in the art and science of the screen. The list of builders of the cinema is as cosmopolitan as its appeal: Greeks, Romans, Persians, British, Italians, Germans, French, Belgians, Austrians and lastly, and in some ways most importantly, Americans. Ancient philosophers, medieval monks, scholarly giants of the Renaissance, scientists, necromancers, modern inventors--all had a role in the 2500 year story of the creation, out of light and shadow, of this most popular and most influential expression--the motion picture.

Great and strange men, some whose fame derives from activities in other fields, others hardly recorded in the passing of history, contributed to what was eventually to become the motion picture. Many of the pioneers of the magic shadow art-science realized the entertainment, educational and scientific potentialities of their discoveries; others did not, because they were preoccupied with other affairs and only toyed with the light and shadow devices.

The following chapters tell how men learned about vision and light, and how apparatus to record and project living realities was developed.

It is the story of the origin of the motion picture, from Adam to Edison.


First magic shadow show--Ancient optical studies--Chinese Shadow Plays, Japanese and English mirrors--The art-science begins with Aristotle and Archimedes, Greeks, and Alhazen, an Arab.

From any viewpoint the story of the origin of the motion picture begins with "A". The fundamental and instinctive urge to create pictures in living reality goes all the way back to Adam. Aristotle developed the theoretical basis of the science of optics. Archimedes made the first systematic use of lenses and mirrors. Alhazen, the Arab, pioneered in the study of the human eye, a prerequisite for developing machines to duplicate requisite functions of the human eye.

Lights and shadows were made when the night and the day were made:

And God said: Be light made. And light was made. And God saw the light that it was good; and He divided the light from the darkness. And He called the light Day, and the darkness Night; and there was evening and morning one day.

And God said: Let there be lights made in the firmament of heaven.... And God made two great lights: a greater light to rule the day; and a lesser light to rule the night; and the stars.

Book of Genesis

The moon playing upon silent waters, the sun casting deepening shadows in the woods, a twinkling campfire, starlight dancing on ruffled waters--all provided the first pageantries of light and shadow. The first eclipse of the sun seen by man was the most thrilling and terrifying light and shadow show of that era, a premiere never rivalled by Hollywood's best.

From the beginning of the record of human aspiration men had the urge to create representations of life. Efforts were made to duplicate in permanent form the pictures reflected in still water, shadows, and birds and animals and people. And so, in a very early day man took up drawing, a variation of light and shadow portrayal. But the early drawings, and attempts for centuries thereafter, did not wholly succeed in their purpose. Life of the surrounding world could not be caught in all its wondrous detail no matter how skilled was the artist. The first picture critics pointed out that the drawings were unnatural because no action was shown and life itself was full of motion.

For cinema purposes, one of the earliest examples of "motion" still pictures is a representation of a boar trotting along, for some 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 years, on a wall of the Font-de-Faune cave at Altamira near Santillana del Mar in Northern Spain. The artist tried to show the boar's headlong pace by equipping the animal with two complete sets of legs. It was recognized a long while before Walt Disney that more than one still picture was necessary to portray natural motion.

For centuries artists continued to strive for the "illusion" of motion without "moving pictures." Depending on the skill of the artist, the result approached the goal in varying degrees. Action was always, and still is, a problem to the artist working with a "still" medium. A pinnacle of success in this quest was reached in the Winged Victory of Samothrace in which the artist did all in his power to show motion in the medium of cold, lifeless marble.

However, the potential progress was limited as long as it was necessary to rely upon the skilled hand of the artist to convey motion. More had to be learned about light and shadow and also a great deal about the everlasting wonder of the human eye before living reality could be captured for future representation.

The poets may speculate about man's first thoughts on light, the sun, moon and stars, and fire. But man used his eyes for ages before he became interested and considered why and how he could15 see, and what light and shadow might be and how they could be usefully harnessed. Even in our day of apparent enlightenment, the underlying explanation of vision and light still eludes our scientists, so we should be patient about the time it took our ancestors to devise ways of harnessing light and shadow to prepare the brightly lighted way for the Bing Crosbys and Betty Grables of our day.

The study of light and vision, and the need for better methods and instruments for observing life resulted in time in the invention of the first optical device--the magnifying glass. All telescopes, microscopes, spectacles, cameras, projectors and other optical instruments have been evolved from the simple lens or magnifying glass. That lens was a special boon to the men and women who through birth, age or misfortune had poor eyesight.

Some authorities hold that as long ago as 6000 B.C. magnifying glasses were used by the Chaldeans in the ancient biblical lands. It is known that the Chaldeans, who developed an elaborate civilization, gave first attention to the study of light and all its problems. A few thousand years before the new era the Babylonians, famed too as gardeners, became great astronomers. The heavens, then and now, present the greatest natural light and shadow show, with a continuous run every night since the beginning of time. So it is not surprising that the first study of light and shadow should concern itself with the stars and planets. The Babylonians, with but the naked eye, picked out constellations and identified them. It was a desire to learn more about the stars that resulted in the development of a telescope, which was a marked advance in the science of light and shadow.

In the ruins of Nineveh, destroyed in 606 B.C., was found a convex lens of quartz and an inscription too fine to be read by the naked eye--proof that those people knew the uses of lenses and treasured fine artistic drawings and writings which could be inscribed only through the use of a magnifying glass.

At an early date the conflict arose between those who wished to use the magic shadows to entertain and instruct and those who wished to use them for purposes of deception.

The Egyptian priests have first claim on the title of light and shadow showmen. Some of the fragments of hieroglyphics indicate16 that they used optical devices to deceive. It is likely that a simple mirror was used to throw images into space. But that would have amazed the people and would have been taken as a sure sign of miraculous power.

The oldest media of light and shadow entertainment and deception was developed by another great and scholarly group, the early Chinese scientists. These were the Chinese Shadow Plays, the origin of which is lost in antiquity, dating back perhaps to 5000 B.C. Silhouette figures shown on a background of smoke and animated as in a puppet show entertained a public thousands of years ago in the Far East. The Chinese Shadow Plays appear to have a close relation to the old-time fireside tricks of twisting the fingers so as to form what appeared to be the shadow of a donkey's head or a representation of a rabbit or of some other animal. Despite the troubled history of China, these Shadow Plays were never lost and they are still presented in remote parts of China and in Java.

Dates of the Chinese contributions to the story of the origin of the cinema and related sciences are uncertain. The Chinese empire was founded around 2800 B.C. and within 500 years of that time the heavens had been charted by the Chinese. A hundred years after an hereditary monarchy was established in China, about 2200 B.C., the ruling powers executed two astronomers for failing to observe properly an eclipse of the sun.

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