Time Capsule

The college classroom has long been an important venue for conveying psychology to the public, and instructors and lecturers have relied on various instructional technologies over time to facilitate its teaching. In recent years, the use of computers to project attention-grabbing visual displays has become a routine part of students' daily immersion in electronic media. As reported in one recent Monitor article, the best way to engage today's undergraduates is to "make your class multimedia" (March Monitor, page 61).

But multimedia instruction has a long history. Prominent among the historical precursors of today's PowerPoint presentations is the "magic lantern," which came into wide use in classrooms of the late 19th century. An early sort of slide projector dating to the 17th century, the magic lantern contained a light source (a gas flame or electric bulb) that transilluminated large glass slides bearing images that were projected through lenses onto large cloth screens. Some versions, such as the "episcope," could project laboratory instruments such as kymographs and other opaque objects onto screens, thus allowing instructors to present live scientific phenomena to large audiences.

In the late 19th century, Leipzig, Germany, became a mecca for students who wanted to study the nascent science of psychology under Wilhelm Wundt. But the city was also renowned as a center of magic lantern technology, including its use in science education. Wundt's first American student, G. Stanley Hall, reported in 1879 that lecture rooms there had been converted into "a sort of theatre ... where the lecturer is mainly occupied in describing his curves and instruments, and signalling assistants, who darken the room, then throw electric lights ... upon mirrors [and] through lenses" to project images onto large screens. In some lectures, he continued, graphical tracings of complex biological phenomena were etched one minute onto smoked glass, then "shown the next minute to an audience magnified upon the screen of a magic lantern."

Leipzig was blessed with a specially designed amphitheater — the Spectatorium — that seated 400 students and featured multiple screens which, like theater sets, could be raised from the floor or dropped from the ceiling, ready to receive images from any of several lanterns. Instructors and their graduate assistants devoted much time to organizing lectures around extravagant displays using the new media of the 1870s. Among the more dramatic demonstrations in Leipzig — produced by the eminent physiologist Emil Du Bois-Reymond and others — was the extraction of a live frog heart, which was projected on a giant screen and perfused so that students could observe details of the pumping action. As Du Bois-Reymond declared in 1877, the lecture hall had become "a show stage (Schaubuehne) for natural phenomena."

Among the Wundt-trained psychologists who subsequently used magic lanterns in America were Hugo Münsterberg at Harvard and E.B. Titchener at Cornell. But it was Edward Scripture at Yale who became the lantern's outspoken advocate in psychology. Having immersed himself in the Leipzig scene and earned his doctorate with Wundt in 1891, Scripture published articles on the use of magic lanterns in the classroom and laboratory, referring to the lantern as "a fundamental piece of apparatus for the lecture-room." His careful cost-benefit analysis, balancing purchase price against time used per student, revealed that the magic lantern and the kymograph were the two most essential and cost-effective instruments for psychologists. The lantern, he estimated, would be used 60 times in an academic year of 35 weeks, at 10 to 30 minutes per usage before 60 to 130 students.

Scripture's uses of the lantern were no ordinary slide shows. His lecture hall was equipped with a double-lens lantern that projected two images at once — one photographed through a red filter, the other through a green filter, and students were issued colored gels through which to view large three-dimensional images. In another use, a screen was stretched across the entire width of the lecture room and a recording apparatus (an ergograph, say, or a plethysmograph) was placed in an episcope, allowing it to be projected onto half the screen. The apparatus drove an elongated stylus that etched a tracing on a smoked glass panel placed in another lantern, which projected the graph, as it was being drawn, onto the other half of the screen. As experimental conditions were varied, students witnessed the unfolding of a real-time, larger-than-life psychology experiment. It was a scene worthy of Leipzig's Spectatorium.

Such classroom feats were not taking place in a cultural vacuum. Awareness of the social and economic benefits of science had stimulated unprecedented public fascination with science during the latter half of the 19th century, and lavishly illustrated lectures on popular science drew mass audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. When the British physicist John Tyndall toured eastern U.S. cities in 1872, his lectures were attended by crowds of up to 1,500 enthusiasts. The New York Daily Tribune published each lecture as it was given, then compiled them into a special edition that sold over 300,000 copies. Such widespread interest led to the prolific manufacture of magic lanterns in the United States, as well as the development of new and improved models, such as Marcy's Sciopticon, a version of the lantern that had brighter illumination, and yet was more compact and lighter in weight. Numerous books were published on the use of lanterns in science teaching.

By the time the new psychology reached American shores in the late 1800s, college students had developed a strong appetite for image-driven science. These students had many attractive options for sciences to pursue, and psychology professors recognized that their new and still-marginal discipline needed to match the pedagogical flair of the older sciences. In 1897, Scripture wrote that "comparisons are constantly drawn between the various departments, and merely as a matter of self-preservation the psychological laboratory must offer courses equal in attractiveness and value to those of physics, chemistry and biology. A lecture room with at least a single lantern ... should be provided. ... The students are no longer a ‘class' to be taught; they are an ‘audience' that must be led."

Thus the magic lantern, which arrived from Germany in tandem with scientific psychology, was seen as a crucial means of attracting the student following that would help psychology survive against the competition of entrenched sciences.

Like Scripture, Titchener, who had three magic lanterns at his disposal, saw such equipment as critical to psychology's ability to compete for students on even terms with the natural sciences. At Columbia, James McKeen Cattell followed Scripture in hailing the lantern as a boon to the economy of classroom instruction, claiming that the time required to teach psychophysical methods could be reduced by half with the aid of projected images. Other proponents of the magic lantern included Edmund Sanford at Clark, as well as Harvard's Münsterberg, but its popularity was widespread. Only with the invention of Kodachrome film in the 1930s did enthusiasm for the magic lantern begin to wane.

However proud we may be of our colorful PowerPoint "slides" (a term curiously carried over from the lantern era), we should remember that the idea of multimedia is new in name but not in concept. And one can honestly wonder whether the animation features available in today's presentation software can measure up to the drama of a gargantuan frog's heart beating in real time before students' eyes.


Laurence D. Smith, PhD, is associate professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Maine. Katharine S. Milar, PhD, of Earlham College is the historical editor of "Time Capsule."

Further reading

  • Dolbear, A.E. (1888). The art of projecting: A manual of experimentation in physics, chemistry and natural history with the porte lumiere and magic lantern (2nd rev. ed.). Boston: Lee and Shepard.

  • Hall, G.S. (1879). The graphic method. The Nation, 29, 238–239.

  • Hankins, T.L., & Silverman, R.J. (1995). Instruments and the imagination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. [Chap. 3 on "The Magic Lantern and the Art of Demonstration"]

  • Novotney, A. (2010, March). New research suggests that offering variety may be the best way to engage today's undergraduates. Monitor on Psychology, 61–62.

  • Pingree, G.B., & Gitelman, L. (2003). Introduction: What's new about new media? In G. B. Pingree & L. Gitelman (Eds.), New media: 1740-1915 (pp. xi-xxii). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Schmidgen, H. (2004). Pictures, preparations, and living processes: The production of immediate visual perception (Anschauung) in late-19th-century physiology. Journal of the History of Biology, 37, 477–513.

  • Scripture, E. W. (1897). Principles of laboratory economy. Studies from the Yale Psychological Laboratory, 5, 93–103.