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I’VE JUST STARTED Lenny Lipton’s astonishing 795-page celebration of The Cinema in Flux: The Evolution of Motion Picture Technology from the Magic Lantern to the Digital Age. It’s not the kind of book to read through in one sitting, but indeed I am beginning with the Glass Era, the earliest of Lipton’s division of cinema; the other two being Celluloid and today’s Digital. 

The Glass Era: Cinema of Real Motion. Lipton describes cinema’s two techniques of projecting motion: real and apparent. In 1659, Christiaan Huygens used glass transparencies to project images, with real motion achieved by physically moving the transparency. (Later in the book, Lipton discusses apparent motion, which was discovered and applied in the 1830s, a topic I’m sure to get to one day, as it involves a favorite of mine, Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau.)  

Christiaan Huygens. “In his day,” Lipton notes, “Christiaan Huygens would have been called a natural philosopher, but that job classification has gone out of style having been made redundant by the specialist, who, as the cliché goes, is a person who knows more and more about less and less.”

Christiaan Huygens, Lord of Zeelhem, 1629–1695, Dutch mathematician, physicist, astronomer, and inventor, regarded as one of the greatest scientists of all time. This and following images from The Cinema in Flux.

“Today,” Lipton writes, “we classify Huygens as a polymath who made contributions as an astronomer, as an inventor, and as one of our great physicists working in optics and mechanics.”

Huygen’s Magic Lantern. A magic lantern has an object placed between a light source and a projection lens. 

“Huygen’s invention of projection, or more exactly projection by the subtraction of light by a transparency, set the pattern for projection technology for centuries…. Huygen’s was the basic projector design used from the seventeenth century into the Glass and Celluloid Cinema Eras until the advent of the Digital Cinema Era and the DMD image engine.”  

Sketches by Huygens of his skeleton slides, perhaps suggesting the first projected moving images.

Johannes Zahn’s Apparent Motion. Lipton observes, “Whereas Huygens may have invented real motion projection, the German scholar and lanternist Johannes Zahn (1641–1707) may well be the originator of the concept of the illusion of projected apparent motion…. Zahn used long slides with adjacent figures in different poses, but his major gift to posterity is a circular ensemble of six slides with poses arranged along the circle’s periphery.”

Zahn’s projector with a disc (1686) generated an illusion of apparent motion.

“Zahn’s circular format,” Lipton says, “became widely used during the transition between the magic lantern and the celluloid cinema.”  

Pure Versus Applied. Lipton notes, “Huygens was dismissive of his creation of the magic lantern for two reasons: he thought it was trivial compared with his other accomplishments, and he deplored its application as frivolous popular entertainment, to wit, la lanterne de la peur.”

I’m reminded of my grad school cliché that one performed applied mathematics only with one’s office door locked. 

I’m going to continue savoring Lipton’s book. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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