[John Semmens and His Magic Lantern]

John Semmens Works Magic With His Lantern

John Semmens brought along to the meeting a Magic Lantern which he personally owns. Not many of these large lanterns have survived as the brass fittings on them were removed and melted down during war time.

Although our Port Phillip Pioneers might have gone to Magic Lantern shows, this particular model was made about 1890 by Watson & Sons who ran their business in Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Watson & Sons were lens makers and manufactured scientific instruments such as microscopes and telescopes, and also cameras.

The idea of using light to project images onto a surface has been around for hundreds of years, but the development of condenser lenses and the use of 'limelight' meant that a much brighter light was produced and images projected onto a screen could be viewed by a lot of people at one time.

The condenser lens sat between the light source and the glass plate which had a picture on it. It concentrated all the light from the light source onto the image. Another lens was used to focus the image.

In the 1500s what was called a Magc Lantern was made using a rather crude lens and candle power. The projector was placed behind a gauze screen the movement of which created ghostly images which were appropriate for religious types of events and contacting people from beyond the grave.

The Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher may have developed the first practical lantern in the late 1600s.

In the mid-19th century the discovery of limelight was used for theatre lighting and in Magic Lanterns. The combination of a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen gases produced a flame which was directed onto a cylinder of quicklime. When heated the quicklime gave off a very bright light. The projectionist or manipulator had to maintain the supply of hydrogen and oxygen and had to rotate the quicklime which melted under the heat.

In the theatre as part of the stage lighting, the 'limelight' was kept on the most important performer.

This method of producing a bright light was extremely dangerous and there were many explosions resulting in buildings being destroyed and people being killed. In Melbourne the Bijou Theatre burnt down in 1889 whilst in 1908, the Presbyterian School Hall in Maryborough caught fire.

In Britain, travelling showmen were forbidden to take gas cylinders on trains and some tried to hide them in golf bags.

Circus owner 'Lord' George Sanger, thus called because of his flashy clothes wrote a book called "Seventy Years a Showman" in which he described a Magic lantern explosion. It occurred in 1852 after the death of the Duke of Wellington. Sanger made arrangements for a lantern show using 2 big lanterns with 16 panoramic pictures of the funeral procession. Each plate was 15 inches long and 4 inches high. When pushed through a projector it gave the impression of movement.

Sanger and his wife were in their caravan beautifying themselves for a performance when there was a blinding flash of light which came from the oxygen and hydrogen gases exploding. The caravan blew to pieces with only the undercarriage and floor remaining. Sanger's wife was blown out of the caravan and was badly burnt whilst Sanger wrote in his book, 'my beautiful curled locks had disappeared . . . my dress coat had fallen off . . . my skin blackened.'

Apart from candles, light could be produced from burning fuels such as oil and kerosene. Kerosene in a 4 wick lantern cast quite a good image and was used until 1910 when there was no electricity and where limelight was not appropriate.

[John Semmens and His Magic Lantern]

The first owner of John Semmens' lantern was Reverend Frewin, from the Anglican Church in North Melbourne. He gave religious lectures to parishioners and children at his Sunday School.

The lantern in biunial, having two lenses, one above the other. This enables one picture to fade out whilst another brightens up. The same scene can appear to change from day to night. The operator had to be quite skilled and usually had an assistant.

John brought with him an assortment of slides to demonstrate. Fortunately for us his lantern runs on electricity but we could see the rubber hosing originally used to carry the gases still connected to the back.

Movement is created by using one glass plate in front of another and by the use of levers, rotating one or both plates. A ship, for example, can be made to bob on the water and the waves can appear to move. "The Rat Catcher" was very popular. A bearded man is in bed snoring and with his mouth open. A rat is seen climbing up the bed and finally jumps into the man's mouth.

Of course the original Magic Lantern shows had music, sound effects and stories that went with the slides and these were either hand painted or transfers.

John finished his demonstration with a series of slides called "The Emigrant's Voyage" which proved to be a very eventful trip indeed.

[Magic Lantern Slides]

( The above is a report on John Semmen's address at the General Meeting on 12 July 2014 )

( Contributed by Jan Hanslow, PPPG Member No. 1057 )

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