People have used light to make projections of shapes for hundreds of years. All that is needed is a light source, something to place in front of it and a blank wall or screen to project onto. The earliest projections were simple shadows on the wall made with firelight.

Magic lanterns were the earliest devices made to produce this effect and have been around since the 17th century. Their use was limited for almost two hundred years. There were three main reasons for this. The practitioners wanted to keep the art secret and ‘magic’; the early slides were large, had wooden frames and had to be carefully hand painted; and the early light sources were not very bright. Candles and oil lamps produced very weak light and it was not until the introduction of electricity that projection became effective.

Lanterns became extremely popular in Victorian times as both public and private entertainment and were enjoyed by people of all ages. Lanterns made specifically for children, such as this one, began to appear at the end of the 19th century.

Early lantern slides were large and had wooden frames. The pictures were hand painted. After 1880 slides were made to a standard size (3.75 inches by 3.75 inches) and fitted into a slide carrier. The pictures in these slides were usually produced by lithography or photography. Making pictures move was achieved in a very crude way with various forms of movable lantern slides. Two or three sheets of glass were used and moved against each other to create movement in the picture. Types include slipping, lever, pivoted, pulley and rackwork.

Slide shows were used to both educate and entertain and sets ranged from the story of Peter Pan to illustrations on the perils of alcohol. The Junior Lecturer Series was extremely popular and covered a vast range of topics including history and geography.

With the advent of celluloid film at the beginning of the 20th century many lanterns were adapted to project film while still being able to show slides. Later, cinematographs and projectors would take the place of lanterns.