Before the Decepticons: early projected images from the Victor Animatograph Company

In the days before Decepticons and Autobots, Viopticons, Stereopticons, and the other members of the Magic Lantern family thrilled audiences in darkened rooms. While perhaps difficult for us to imagine from our movie-savy perspective, for many years before the advent of cinema people went out to the “picture show” to look at slides.  Theatergoers were captivated by the magical effect of these projected images. Eventually, enterprising showmen added musicians and sound effects to enhance the show–even animating the images by various mechanical techniques. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, phantasmagoria shows left audiences shivering with terror for fear that ghosts and demons had been set upon them.

The Texas Collection recently uncovered two boxes of glass slides manufactured by the Victor Animatograph Co. of Davenport, Iowa. These slides were 2 x 2.25 inches and were shown on the Viopticon, the first truly portable stereopticon. The Vioptican projected images using a brilliant carbon arc lamp.  Sets of Viopticon slides were available for purchase or rent as illustrated lectures. Our two sets of slides were used by Baylor history professor Francis Gevrier Guittard in the early 1900s. One set contains hand-tinted photographs of Yellowstone National Park, and the other set depicts important events from the life of George Washington during the American Revolution. While these slides were not part of a spectacular Magic Lantern theater experience, they represent an early example of educational technology as manufacturers began to promote the use of projectors in the classroom.

The inventor of the Viopticon, Alexander Victor, lived a fascinating life. Born in Sweden in 1878, his first career was as a magician and showman working with the renowned Stephanio. Victor had obtained an early Lumiere Cinematograph and added projected pictures to Stephanio’s show, much to audience delight.  After Stephanio’s death, Victor continued touring with his own troupe, but a warehouse fire in Ohio destroyed his entire collection of magical props and his career as a performer ended.

Despite this setback, the astonishingly creative Victor began again, and went on to invent the first electric washing machine for the White Lily Company.   In keeping with his interest in projected images, and recognizing that there could be a larger market for motion pictures than as entertainment, Victor next invented what may be the first amateur 16mm movie camera and projector.  In 1915, realizing that the danger created from highly flammable nitrate film stock would limit market growth in schools, businesses, and churches, Victor began pushing the film industry to adopt new safety standards and move to cellulose acetate “safety film.”

You can see a slideshow of these Viopticon images and imagine yourself in an early 20th century classroom by visiting our flickr page. For the Yellowstone slides click here, and for George Washington, click here.

This entry was posted in Archives, Discoveries, Photographs, Viopticon. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Before the Decepticons: early projected images from the Victor Animatograph Company

  1. B. Johnson says:

    I just found some VICTOR ANIMATOGRAPH slides. Nineteen depict the trial and crucifixion of Christ; another 13 representing Dutch children, a ship’s captain, a woodcarver (think the name under him is Larry Renalt or something like that), portraits and more.

  2. Awc says:

    How cool! We had never seen any until we found these. Were the ones you found hand-colored or black and white?

  3. Kaitlyn says:

    I was wondering how to find out how much these slides are qworth. I have a collection of 40 that my grandmother gave me, Mostly of Jerusalem and some of Jesus. Thank you, any information is helpful.

    • Amanda Norman says:

      We are hoping to put together a list of Central Texas appraisers, but in the meantime, you might refer to the list posted by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History here . If you’re not in this area, you might check on the websites of various history centers, libraries, etc., in your area.

  4. Interesting article, I recommend it to my friends.

  5. Eric Scheirer Stott says:

    Slides of the Life of Christ and other religious subjects are not of great value o the market- many hundreds of these sets (bu various companies) were sold to churches and schools, and quite a few survive tucked away in boxes. I’d say they are worth at the most a dollar or two a slide, if the coloring is attractive.

  6. Mert Jones says:

    I have one Victor Animatograph Co. Glass Slide the scene depicts 3 white fur trappers. There is a house with bear pelts hanging. Any idea how I can do more research on this particular slide? It has a hand written number on it as well. Thanks

    • Amanda Norman says:

      Slides were made on a wide variety of subjects, so it’s hard to pin down details on a scene like that. The handwritten number could be a manufacturer identifier, but it also could be a number applied by a previous owner for his or her slideshow. A Google search will show the wide variety of Victor Animatograph slides that have been digitized by other libraries or are for sale–we suggest you start by perusing those sites and see if you find anything like your slide, then build from there. Good luck!

  7. Mert Jones says:

    Thanks for the response will continue to dig… these things are super fun! This is the 1st one I have come across.

  8. John Fryer-Kelsey says:

    Hi, I’ve just been shown something you may find of interest. My brother in 2004 acquired from the auction 6 well made boxes with about 50 glass slides in each, all numbered and recorded showing cathedrals and churches of England by F.Gill. Stained glass windows and certain aspects all in mono which look incredibly detailed and well taken, I don’t know how you would view these, there about 2 1/2 x 2 ins ?

    Best Regards

    Joh

    • Amanda Norman says:

      Hi John, those slides do sound interesting. Glass-plate slides, also called lantern slides, can show remarkable detail. These kinds of photographic materials can be digitized, much the same way you would scan a negative, and short of finding your own Magic Lantern viewer, that’s probably the best way to view them! Here’s some information on the storage of such slides, and if you do a Google search for something like “scanning glass slides,” you’ll find both do-it-yourself advice as well as vendors who will do it for you. Good luck!

  9. Santiago says:

    I just purchased 62 of these glass slides, all of them depicting life in Japan. One even has a depiction of Emperor Meiji on a horse. There are years of dust on some, is there any proper way of cleaning them without damaging the picture?

    • Amanda Norman says:

      Thank you for your question, and what an interesting find! Penn State did a nice summary of their process for preparing glass lantern slides for digitization. I would add to their instructions to be sparing with the film cleaner, and maybe even try out the process on one, start to finish, to make sure you get the results you’re seeking. Good luck!

  10. Yoechua says:

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  11. Michael Cleveland says:

    I might be able to clarify this a little. Your dates are a little out of kilter. Victor’s entry into 16mm was not “next”, though he did develop and promote a 28mm non-theatrical format in the late teens that was the basis for his efforts to establish safety film standards in 1918. 16mm wasn’t introduced until 1923. In spite of his advertising claims, Victor was not the inventor of the 16mm film format, nor was his equipment the first. Kodak invited Victor to examine the new 16mm system it was developing and suggested that Victor might want to consider making 16mm cameras and projectors. John Capstaff at Kodak invented and developed the system between 1914 and 1923, initially working largely in his spare time. Kodak sold its first cameras and projectors in July 1923. Victor’s first sales were in late August, about seven weeks later. His first prototype was not completed until early 1923, while Kodak had built its first in November 1921 and had six by June of the following year. There is no foundation for Victor’s claim to priority except his own wishful thinking. Still, he is by far the most interesting character I’ve encountered in my research.

    • Amanda Norman says:

      Thanks for the clarifications! We’re guessing Kodak did not appreciate Victor’s claims…but obviously they won out both in getting new technology on the market and as the household name.

  12. Garfield says:

    I came across the projector with the power source also with it’s carrying case. Sadly it does not seem to have it’s wood slide bar. It does have the brass lens holder. What year with this be. It looks just like the one you have in your image above

    • Amanda Norman says:

      We’re not sure how long the Viopticon was in production. According to this article, Victor introduced it in 1912, though he didn’t receive the patent for it till 1917. However, Victor quickly moved on to other projection designs, so the Viopticon may not have been produced for very long. Here’s an interesting 1913 trade publication, Camera Craft, with a mention of the Viopticon. Any experts out there know more?

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