Seeing science: history through slides

The Wagner Free Institute hosted a presentation on early visual media forms.

Dr. Oliver Gaycken presents historic lantern slides at the Wagner. | PHOTO COURTESY WAGNER FREE INSTITUTE OF SCIENCE

Dr. Oliver Gaycken’s presentation at the Wagner Free Institute of Science on early visual media was reminiscent to a lecture that William Wagner held in the beginning years of the education center.

A collection of 19th century lantern slides were illuminated on the historic walls through an over 100-year-old projector—the same way it was shown to its audience centuries ago.

Gaycken, an assistant professor at Temple until 2011, presented How to See Science: A Media History on Thurs., May 19, as a part of the museum’s free lecture series. Through Gaycken’s lantern slide presentation, attendees were able to view the early methods of visual media that were used to teach science at the turn of the 20th century.

Lantern slides—transparent photography used for visual projection through a lantern lighting source—was the precursor to modern-day cinema.

The current assistant professor at University of Maryland focused the presentation on “two particular and related ways in which science and vision have intersected in the field of optical projection: lantern culture and cinema.”

He showed examples from the 19th century practice of lantern slide projection and explained how this type of education was utilized through cinema.

“The sustained interest in visual presentation through PowerPoint or the various ways that people are thinking about how the internet can deliver content, are all examples of how it continues to be a part of today’s educational landscape,” he said.

Gaycken said the lanterns are the earliest form of cinema, which we recognize today as feature-length films and movies.

He discussed the history of lantern culture and the evolution of projected images explaining the aspects of astronomy, geology, paleontology and more.

“Some of these images projected photography of war heroes—the dead heroes of the French Revolution—as if the lantern were bringing them back to life.”

Bayard Miller, a 2012 Temple graduate with a Master’s in public history, also spoke at the event.

Miller is currently a Beckman Manuscripts Processor at the American Philosophical Society in Old City and worked closely with Gaycken during his time at Temple.

Miller’s own thesis was a digitization project on lantern slides, specifically focused on the Wagner’s collection and how the museum focuses on teaching science to the public.

Librarian Lynn Dorwaldt and others from the Wagner have enhanced Miller’s past work and included it in their annual Lantern Slide Salon, which is happening this October as a part of Philadelphia’s Archive Month.  

“The Lantern Slide Salon is another opportunity for people to see our lantern slide in action and learn about how those media were used in the late 19th century,” Cara Scharf, programs and communications manager at the Wagner, said.

The event is a series of lantern slide presentations from different science institutions across the city said Scharf.

In the past, the Wagner has collaborated with the Franklin Institute, the Penn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Temple’s own Special Collections Research Center.

Gaycken and Miller both agree that using lantern slides as a medium for science education is reflective of the Wagner’s original mission.

“It’s a critical component to understanding what the Wagner looked like through the years and for understanding how the kind of science they were teaching was conveyed,” Gaycken said.

“On one hand, it’s important to understand it for the historical context but also that it continues to be kind of a real critical, central, keyway of conveying information,” he added. “It’s not as if these techniques are obsolete, in fact, in a lot of ways they’re more important than ever.”

Alexa Zizi can be reached at

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