Before Zoom, Pre-Cinema, Optical Devices Tour

Remember 2:00 p,m, EST on Friday, December 4, 2020


One day Gillett Griffin, Graphic Arts Curator 1953-1966, was working on the 2nd floor of Firestone library and a graduate student named William Mackenzie walked in. It seems his Scottish aunt had this big wood thing in her attic she wanted to get rid of and would Gillett like it for the collection? Happily he said yes.

The gigantic optical device [left] known as an alethoscope was added to the graphic arts collection. Because of its size, we call this a Mega-alethoscope or megalethoscope and there are only a handful of these beautiful devices in the United States. In fact, if you look it up in Wikipedia, you will see Princeton’s megalethoscope.

Patented by Carlo Ponti in 1861, the slides for this deluxe viewer are albumen silver prints on stretched canvas, with holes or layers so that when light comes from the front, you see a daytime scene and when light comes from the back, day turns to night.


The evolution of images and image viewing is of equal importance to the evolution of words. The optical devices are not simply toys or novelties but important evidence documenting image viewing over the last 500 years.





Please join us at 2:00 EST on Friday, December 4, 2020, for a free webinar highlighting our collection of pre-zoom, pre-cinema optical devices, rare artifacts designed for shared public entertainment or personal moments of wonder, leading up to the invention of the motion picture.

Through a series of live webcams (yikes, not prerecorded), we will attempt the phantasmagoria experienced in the past as we peer into 18th-century peepshows, twirl phenakistoscopes, open a gigantic megalethoscope and crank a miniature cinematograph. Feel the sense of wonder as still images come to life, turning day to night, causing volcanoes to erupt, and conjuring faces to rise from anamorphic chaos.

We will be joined by Christopher Collier, Executive Director, and Jesse Crooks, Operations Director and Head Projectionist for Renew Theaters, who will share some of the history and treasures of Princeton’s Garden Theater.

As always, this one hour session is free and open to the pubic but you need to register to get the invitation link: Register here.






Seen here are a variety of 18th-century hand colored prints and 19th-century photographs, each used in a different type of viewing device.