Brain Pickings

How Lantern Slides Revolutionized Education: A Protein Story


When an old entertainment technology brought the world to the lecture hall, bridging science and art.

We’ve already seen how the humble lantern slide changed photography and storytelling, but little credence is given to how profoundly it changed education and the academic world. In the altogether excellent biography I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science (UK; public library) — which tells the story of a pioneering and controversial female mathematician who helped shed light on the molecular structure of proteins, was the first woman to receive a Doctor of Science degree from Oxford University, and embodied the cross-pollination of disciplines two decades before C. P. Snow’s famous lament about the “two cultures”Marjorie Senechal writes:

Lantern slides — glass slides 3.5 x 4 inches, with photographic images transferred to them by any of several methods — were patented in 1850. The invention brought the inventors, William and Frederick Langenheim of Philadelphia, a medal at the first of the great world fairs, the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. The brothers meant to entertain, nothing more. But the impact of these replicable, portable slides was far greater: the lantern slide brought the world to the lecture hall. In its century-long heyday, from the invention of photography to the Second World War, the ‘magic lantern’ transformed the transmission of art and science.

Dorothy Wrinch's cracked lantern slide showing her protein model. The model was constructed and photographed in Niels Bohr's laboratory in Copenhagen; the lantern slide was made for Irving Langmuir, 1940.

Senechal, who had assisted with Wrinch with a book and had spent considerable time with the scientists in her final years, recalls trying to make sense of Wrinch’s belongings after her death, including her astounding lantern slides:

As I grope my way back through the cluttered cage, I spot a cardboard box on a high shelf of metal staging. It’s very heavy; I can scarcely lift it down. It’s filled with lantern slides. These slides have no numbers, and most have no envelope. I browse through them: models, crystals, diffraction patterns. The images are elegant, concise, precise. My heart skips a beat; then tears blur my eyes: these are Dorothy’s slides. She must have stashed them here when the science center opened, to great fanfare, in 1965. Her new office was small and by then lantern slides were history, supplanted by new technology: Kodak carousels, overhead projectors. She would never use her lantern slides again.

The oldest slides in the box are hand-made: disintegrating negatives clamped between glass plates, bound with red or black tape. I hold one up to the light. The glass is cracked, the aged tape disintegrating.

Dorothy’s protein model. Simple, beautiful, elegant. The geometrical objet d’art that catalyzed research on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dorothy Wrinch's lantern slide showing cyclol fragments as denatured proteins.

I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science is absolutely fantastic in its entirety — poignant, rigorously researched, absorbingly narrated, impossible to put down. Do pick it up.

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