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Dead medium: Robertson's Phantasmagoria
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): The Female Thermometer: 18th-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny by Terry Castle Oxford University Press, 1995 ISBN 0-19-508097-1

(((Is it psychology? Anthropology? Feminism? Is it literary critism? Is it a densely footnoted and meticulously referenced technical history of the dead- media inventions of Enlightenment pseudoscience? Yes, it's all this *and more*! in Terry Castle's collection of essays in 18th-century culture studies, "The Female Thermometer."

(((It's a privilege to quote at considerable length from this terrific work by Professor Castle of Stanford University -- bruces@well)))

page 144

"In Germinal Year VI (March 1798) a Belgian inventor, physicist, and student of optics named Etienne-Gaspard Robertson presented what he called the first 'fantasmagorie' at the Pavillon de l'Echiquier in Paris.

(((Footnote: "Robertson (originally Robert) was born in Liege. On his colorful career, see his *Memoires recreatifs, scientifiques, et anecdotiques d'un physicien- aeronaute* (Paris 1830-34). I have used the modern reprint, introduced by Philippe Blon, 2 vols. (Paris, 1985)(...) Stendhal describes one of Robertson's provincial shows in his *Memoires d'un touriste* (1838), in the section entitled, 'Nivernais, le 18 avril.'")))

"Robertson, whose long and unusual career reflects the excitement and instability of his epoch, was both a brilliant eccentric and a tireless self-promoter. He first came to public notice in 1796 when he proposed to the Directoire a scheme for burning up the British fleet with a gigantic 'miroir d'Archimede' == an assemblage of mirrors designed to concentrate solar rays on a distant object until the object caught fire. This particular plan was never put into action, but 'Citoyen' Robertson carried out a number of other public-spirited ventures in the years that followed. He experimented with galvanism and gave popular demonstrations in physics and optics in the 1790s and early 1800s. He was best known, however, as a balloon aeronaut, setting an altitude record in a *montgolfiere* in Hamburg in 1803. He later accompanied the Russian ambassador to China, where he demonstrated ballooning technique in the 1820s.

"Robertson's phantasmagoria grew out of an interest in magic, conjuring, and optical effects. As he recalled in his *Memoires recreatifs, scientifiques and anedotiques* of 1830-34, he had been fascinated in youth with the conjuring device known as the magic lantern, invented by Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth century. Kircher's device, from which all our modern instruments for slide and cinematic projection derive, consisted of a lantern containing a candle and a concave mirror. A tube with a convex lens at each end was fitted into an opening in the side of the lantern, while a groove in the middle of the tube held a small image painted on glass. When candlelight was reflected by the concave mirror onto the first lens, the lens concentrated the light on the image on the glass slide. The second lens in turn magnified the illuminated image and projected it onto a wall or gauze screen. In darkness, with the screen itself invisible, images could be made to appear like fantastic luminous shapes, floating inexplicably in the air."