Slide film history

In our virtual exhibition, we are going to study the history of slideshows and slide-projectors from the several-thousand-year-old invention of shadow plays and Leonardo da Vinci’s camera obscura to the prosperous optical industry of the 20th century. We are going back to the cambered cartoon slide projectors that existed in most households as of the 1950s and the colourful board and later plastic boxes filled with reels, from which it felt so good to select those bedtime stories.

Playing with pictures


People have been entertaining one another with shadow games and shadows projected to the wall for thousands of years. Even the ancient Chinese played with the light-shadow effect. At medieval fairs, a Cantastoria (story-singer) told stories to the audience with the aid of painted boards. This form of picture stories occurred in literature as well. Hungarian poet János Arany was also inspired by that and he used a Cantastoria as a narrator to tell a tragic love story in his ballad 'A kép-mutogató' (The Cantastoria). Shortly afterwards, a new and more spectacular fair entertainment ousted them: the world panorama, which allowed people to take a look at pictures with a magnifier, made of far-away cities, events, sometimes lurid executions or natural disasters.

Great ancestors and the magic lantern


The appearance of camera obscura was an important milestone in the history of slide projectors. Leonardo da Vinci applied it in the 15th-16th centuries. Camera obscura or darkroom was an obscured room or box, where a light effect from outside reaches the opposite wall through a convex lens and the image of the external world is projected to the wall. The camera obscura is the ancestor of the photo camera; today's cameras are also based on the same principle. German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher created the first slide projector. He put the light source inside the darkroom, thus the first laterna magica – the magic lantern – was born.

In 1704, the first laterna magica arrived in Hungary, at the reformed college of Sárospatak, where it served as an educational visual aid. It projected scenes from the Bible mostly, but there was a series of images about the seven wonders of the ancient world as well. Painting the projected pictures became a new profession, and people made them in manufactures. From the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century, glass plates marked out for projection were made this way, just like handicraft products.


Two crucial events happened in the history of slide projectors during the 19th century: photography and electricity started their world-conquering campaign. Niépce and Daguerre introduced the great invention 'daguerreotype' to the world in 1839. Thanks to them, we can get to know the history of the whole 20th century documented by photos. Edison patented the filament light bulb in 1879.

In Hungary, the Italian Stefano Calderoni's teaching aid and optician company produced optical instruments and projectors in the beginning of the 19th century. The firm was founded in 1819, later it was known as Calderoni and Partner, and after that Calderoni Technician and Teaching Aid Co. Calderoni's partner was Franz Hopp from Moravia, known as Ferenc Hopp in Hungary. He was a famous art collector and globetrotter; he gave his name and collection to the Museum of Eastern Asiatic Arts in Budapest. His shop on Gizella (presently Vörösmarty) Square was so popular that even author Gyula Krúdy mentioned it in his writings.

Slide-cinema – Uránia

urania_szinhazegylet_363429.jpgThe Uránia Scientific Theatre was established at the end of the 19th century. Its aim was to spread scientific knowledge by discourses and lectures, and later by slide shows. It had a collection of 40 thousand slides in 1911. The society maintained work relationship with Calderoni and the father of city photo shooting György Klösz. The lectures in Budapest were held in the building of today’s Uránia cinema, but their activity was ceased in 1922. A few years later, the action went on under the name 'Falu Urániája' (Uránia of the village) in 1926. Travelling around the country, they presented slide shows in agricultural, historical, religious topics, or irredentist stories that were typical in the 1920s.


World brands were born

As of the end of the 19th century, a number of optical firms started operating, including Ernst Leitz’s enterprise that produced the legendary Leica camera. The trademark Leica came from the mixture of words Leitz(sche) Camera. The ancient Leica was created by developing engineer Oskar Barnack. It was a small camera that could take photos on 35mm perforated cellulose film. In motion-picture making, it is still the standard film size and Edison patented it as well. Between the two world wars, Zeiss, Pathé and Kodak were considered prosperous companies in the field of cameras and projectors.

The Hungarian situation

In Hungary, the first nitro-cellulose (rather flammable) film reels and their projectors appeared in the 1940s. The projected glass plates were crowded out from the market soon, as well as the nitro-cellulose film, and their place was taken over by the safety film or acetate film. Although Eastman Kodak Company developed and started trading acetate films by 1923, the invention arrived and started spreading in Hungary only in 1953. The mass production of slide reels began in 1948, when the slide department of the Hungarian Photo State Company was formed. The role of the slide department went to its successor the Hungarian Slide Film Producing Company in 1954. During the 1950s, the published films were usually about the political propaganda: the communist party, Stalin, Rákosi or the industrial and agricultural productions.

mom_556927.JPGAs the popularity of reel-films increased, the cartoon film projection at homes started. During the decades of the second half of the 20th century, watching projected cartoon slides became an important entertaining form for children. In 1952 and '53, 31 new cartoons were published on slide films; and the average number increased to 300 annually as of the 1960s, including the slide films adapting juvenile literature. The Hungarian Optical Works (MOM) developed a slide projector that were produced in two different types: a version with kerosene lamp for homes without electricity and the electric version. In addition, the kerosene-lamp version could be transformed into an electric projector with the attached parts. The slide-projector with cartridge disc made by Lemezárugyár (Metal Plate Factory) was traded since the 1950s until the ‘80s. We could see a lot of slide cartoons and stories owing to this machine.

brillamatic_283026.JPGIn the 1960s, the less successful Brillamatic projectors were developed and launched in Hungary. They were capable of projecting slides and reels, even by remote control. They were traded only for a short period; the product line was not developed further. Synchronizers, which could show slides and make sounds automatically, were also the inventions of this decade.

Nostalgia of slide shows

mozikonyv_347962.JPGThe Hungarian Slide Film Company’s successor is the Slide Film Ltd. that is trading 230 Hungarian slide films presently. Cartoon projectors has a renaissance now. People who grew up with slide cartoons want to share the mystic experience of slideshows with their children. It makes sense, because it is a special and intimate activity to experience in a dark room how stories come to life in front of you. Last but not least, slideshow watching has positive influence on children’s emotional and intellectual development, which was supported by psychologists.

tajfun_369486.jpgThe Slide Film Collection safeguards the largest slide film collection in the country, presently in Art+ Cinema (the former Örökmozgó Cinema) on Erzsébet Boulevard, Budapest. This private collection has been operating for four decades. Its collection fields include educational, informing and entertaining film slides (diapositives) from the 1920s up till now. The collection consist of 5423 slide films and slide series, 428 foreign slide films and slide series and 148 sound slide films. The stock of slide films published by the Hungarian Slide Film Company is almost complete. Projecting instruments, slide projectors and slide-viewers can be found in the collection, too. If you fancy watching old slides, you can select from the Virtual Slide Museum (Virtuális Diamúzeum) website among thousands of slide films, guarded in digital format as well, in astronautics, fine arts or even classic fairy tales. You can access to slideshows on their YouTube channel, with period sound recording as a special treat. Slide-projectors can be browsed on MaNDA’s database: photos of specialities from the 19th century, slide reels or products of the Eastern block. The material is also accessible on the website of Europeana, the European Digital Library.

We want to express our special thanks to Mr. Ferenc Bíró, leader of the Slide Film Collection, for reviewing the text.


Translated by Zita Aknai

Source: The Slide Film Collection / Virtual Slide Museum


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