In this uncertain world one thing is sure: we do love movies. What is better than sinking into a big cinema armchair with a bowl? Or curling up on the sofa for a movie marathon? What would we do without our favorite TV show on Netflix? But unlucky people of the past couldn’t enjoy our passion, until brilliant inventors came to save them.

Long before Lumière brothers and their Cinématographe, less known optical wonders led the way to modern cinema. Don’t be misled by their high-flown names and let them dazzle you.

Magic lantern

Nothing to do with oriental tales and genii living inside lamps, the magic lantern was one of the earliest image projectors used to show moving images painted on glass slides.

The origin of this invention is still mysterious: the first description of the Lanterna Magica was written by a German Jesuit priest, Athanasius Kircher, who in his Ars Magna lucis et umbrae (The great art of light and shadow) described and drew the system.

Kircher’s drawings, however, present the components of the magic lantern in a wrong arrangement, calling his credit in question. The Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens is today considered the most likely inventor.


The famous Belgian stage magician Etienne-Gaspard Robert read Kircher’s book and was interested in the magic lantern.

In 1799 he improved the projector with a wheels system, to change the size of the image projected, and making possible to show more than one slide at once, too.

The showman called his device Fantascope and organized theatrical shows, already known as Phantasmagoria, where frightening skeletons, ghosts and demons made the public shivering.

Following the dark times of the French Revolution, Robertson created an incredible show in an abandoned convent in Paris.

The public gathered in a large crypt where he pretended to explain his tricks, then, all of a sudden, the room plunged into darkness and the Phantasmagoria began.

Using several Fantascopes he projected scaring monsters, which seemed to move towards spectators, and added creepy music, real actors with masks, ventriloquism and smoke.

Better than modern haunted houses in amusement parks.


Very popular in the second half of the 18th century, the Zograscope is an optical device used to give the sense of depth to a flat picture.

Built with a lens and an angled mirror it was also known as New World and was used for public entertainment in villages and market squares.

Unlike the magic lantern, in fact, the Zograscope didn’t need darkness, but could be used during the day in open spaces.

For common people these shows were like modern news bulletins because the images represented real events, ceremonies and far-away places they couldn’t afford to visit.

During the French Revolution the most popular one showed Marie Antoinette’s beheading because executions were considered public shows at the time and, people who couldn’t go to Paris, had to make do with its representation.


A toy widely used in the 19th century, the Thaumatrope is made of a disk with a picture on each side and two pieces of string attached to its edges. When you twirl the strings quickly the two images blend into a single one.

The most common ones show a bird on one side and a cage on the other, so that the bird appears in the cage when the Thaumatrope is turned.

This is the principle of the persistence of vision that is behind movies still nowadays. When we watch the screen a visual impression remains in our brains for a while after it has been withdrawn.

Mathematician Charles Babbage in his 1864 memoirs presents geologist W.H. Fitton as the inventor of the toy. J. A. Paris, however, is considered its developer and commercial user.


Joseph Plateau and his sons created the Phenakistoscope in 1832 and like the other illusion toys of the time it soon became a great success.

The Belgian physicist was inspired by Michael Faraday’s Wheel, which was made of two matching wheels on the same axis with spokes around the perimeter.

He drew images with successive action on the first disc and left the slots around the edge on the second one.

Looking in a mirror through the slots when the two discs are spun together in alternate directions the pictures give the idea of movement.

In the same period Austrian geometrician Simon Von Stampfer created an identical device and called it Stroboscope.

Daedaleum or Zoetrope

Wrongly known as The Wheel of the Devil, from a wrong translation of its original Latin name Dedaleum, this fabulous device is widely known as Zoetrope.

In 1834 W.H. Horner created a new version of the Phenakistocope that allowed more people to watch the images at the same time without the need of a mirror.

Horner’s version was a drum containing a sequence of drawings, each picture slightly different from the next. When the drum was set spinning, people could see the illusion of movement through slots cut on the edge.

Its first name Daedaleum was chosen to honour artist of antiquity Deadalus, but the invention was almost forgotten until 1887, when it was patented by American W.E. Lincoln with the name for which it is still remembered: Zoetrope, The Wheel of life (zoe= life – tropos = turning).


French scientist Emile Reynaud was able to create a new illusion toy, the Praxinoscope, combining previous pre-cinema inventions that were becoming famous in those years.

A mix between Horner’s toy and the magic lantern system, the Praxinoscope allowed to have a good animation without loosing luminosity as it happened with the Zoetrope.

Reynaud had the great intuition of replacing the opaque drawings with transparent ones so that they could be projected.

In 1872 he used his idea to create theatrical entertainment, evolving from the old repetitive images to animated characters that he painted on long strips.

His Theatre Optique  (Optic Theater) attracted many people, but the effect of the animations was slower than he had hoped and the great work needed to create the drawings made the projections difficult to produce.

However, for his time, Reynaud achieved one of the closest results to modern cinema that would arrive not much later.


Among the 1,093 US patents credited under Thomas Edison, the Kinetoscope was probably the one he would have never believed to be successful.

Even if it is known and patented as Thomas Edison’s invention, the early filmmaking device was actually developed by his brilliant assistant W.K.L. Dickson in 1888.

The machine looked like a large box whit a system that quickly moved a strip of film over a light source.

The public could watch the film from a hole in the top of the box, and looking at the sequential images like those in a flipbook, they could get the impression of movement.

To keep the invention popular Edison created a motion picture production studio, called Black Maria, at West Orange in 1892.

The earliest film from the studio that still survives is Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894, known as Fred Ott’s Sneeze, which records an employee sneezing comically for the camera.


The Vitascope (originally called Phantoscope), another invention related to Edison’s name, was created to gain more money because the Kinetoscope only allowed a limited number of viewers in a limited time.

The early movie projector, however, was not invented by Edison himself but by Charles F. Jenkins and Thomas Armat in 1895.

The two students developed the projector and then travel to Atlanta to give a public demonstration of their invention.

Soon after, the two claimed sole credit for the invention and kept working to improve it independently.

Armat, with the help of entrepreneurs Raff and Gammon, approached Edison with the intention that he developed the machine.

The Edison Manufacturing Company agreed to manufacture it and to produce films for it, but on the condition it would be advertised as a new Edison invention named the Vitascope.

The first theatrical exhibition took place on April 1896 in Herald Square, New York City.


And eventually, here is the invention you were all waiting for to prove your knowledge of cinema’s history: Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe.

Thanks to their father’s influence and their work at the Lumière factory, which produced photographic goods, Louis and August started to work on a camera and a projector.

The Cinématographe was made of a camera for recording the movement, a printer and, when connected to a magic lantern, a projector.

Its strength, compared with the Kinetoscope, was the smaller dimension and lighter weight that allowed shooting film everywhere, while Edison’s invention was confined in the Black Maria Studio.

Understanding the huge commercial opportunity, the Lumières established agencies in many countries and made around 450 Cinématographes.

The first ever cinema show to a paying audience was presented on 28 December 1895 at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.


The rest, as we know, it’s history…and popcorn! What