The Fascinating History of Projectors (How We Got Here)

The capabilities of the technology available to us today have opened up avenues for creative expression that were previously unimaginable. Projectors, for instance, allow us to view images and video streams on pretty much any surface. Today, they are found in classrooms, conference halls, and movie theaters.

As with most technologies, the history of projectors is a culmination of years of individual scientific advancements. Projectors did not just happen one day – they evolved from shadow plays and the magic lanterns of China to the 360° projection domes we know today. Let’s take a look at this long journey.

the history of projectors

Camera Obscura (Circa 470 to 391 BC)

Man has always been fascinated with light. It is safe to assume that early man began experimenting with hand shadows the moment he discovered fire. In fact, recorded history from the early days shows that scientists already showed a superior understanding of the physics of optics and light.

Euclid, the Greek Philosopher, and Mozi, the Han Chinese Philosopher, described a phenomenon in which light passed through a small aperture to project an upside-down image on the opposite side. This would later be dubbed the Camera Obscura.

The Camera Obscura is the intersection between the history of cameras and projectors. The phrase is Latin for ‘dark room’ and describes the phenomenon observed by Mozi circa 470 to 391 BC. According to Mozi, the image produced by the Camera Obscura was inverted because light travels in a straight line.

Mozi’s concept was widely applied across different fields but mostly used as a drawing aid. The 17th-century advancements in optical lenses and mirrors greatly improved the applications of the Camera Obscura, and the device was later adapted into the photographic camera (19th century).

Camera obscura
Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Chinese Magic Mirrors and Shadow Play (206 BC-24 AD)

China’s Han Dynasty was already ahead of its time, having developed reflective technology more than 2000 years ago. Skilled metalworkers from this era created elaborate light penetration mirrors from brass, which the West commonly called Chinese Magic Mirrors.

Chinese Magic Mirrors are the oldest objects known to man that can project images. Their origin can be traced back to between 260 BC and 24 AD in China and Japan. Essentially, they were made of elaborate motifs and patterns on one side and small imperfections on the metal surface in the back.

Light that reflected off the concave side with the mirror projected the decorative patterns on the other side, seemingly from nothing. Around this time, performers across Asia developed Shadow Play, where they told stories by casting shadows on a cloth stage.

Chinese Magic Mirrors and Shadow Play are today considered the earliest attempts at projection.

Quick Fact: Many Asian cultures still practice projection art today using modern lighting.

The Magic Lantern (the 1600s)

Magic Lantern
Photo: Andrei Niemimäki via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0

The Magic Lantern is widely associated with Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch Scientist, and natural philosopher. Huygens developed the device in 1659, although earlier records show that Leonardo Da Vinci had drawn a similar device in 1515. Based on the principles established by the Camera Obscura, the Magic Lantern was the next big step in the development of projection.

The previous 50 years had brought remarkable experiments in optical technology. Scientists were combining mirrors and lenses to create optical illusions, telescopes, and microscopes. While these devices were not available to the public, the principles inspired many inventors.

Huygens debuted the Magic Lanterns at a time when the only artificial light sources available were oil lamps and candles. He banked on the improvement of condenser lenses and concave mirrors to concentrate these light sources into an intense beam that could project images at great distances.

The images from the lanterns appeared from glass plates that lanternists hand painted and slid into slots in front of a controlled light beam. The plates expanded immensely to create all sorts of illusions and colorful constructs, such as the Victorian Chromatrope.

The Victorian Chromatrope was based on Magic Lantern principles and featured two colorful disks rotated in opposite directions using a small crank handle to create a beautiful color display.

Natural Optics, Philosophy, And The Episcope (the Mid 1700s)

Huygens did not stop with the Magic Lantern. He also proposed that light was a wave that spread out from a source in all directions. Isaac Newton, the famous English physicist, refuted this theory, maintaining that light could not be a wave because it traveled in a straight line.

Newton was at this time working with prisms and observed how they separated beams of light into distinct color spectrums. He then concluded that this color separation was only possible because the light was made of very small particles. From then on, Newton and Huygens went back and forth.

Newton’s work with prisms demonstrated chromatic aberration, which is one of the fundamental difficulties of producing clear optical images with glass lenses. This problem affected his astronomical experiments since his telescope used glass lenses. Consequently, he made one out of mirrors.

Newton’s telescope inspired Swiss astronomer Leonard Euler to develop the Episcope in the mid-1700s. Also called an opaque projector, the Episcope illuminated the surface of its base instead of focusing a light beam through a translucent medium.

Photo: Miloš Jurišić via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

It had a hole in the bottom, which allowed it to be placed over any object or image. The image would then be reflected by a mirror at the top of the device through a lens to produce a larger albeit dimmer projection on the opposite side.

The Phenakistiscope and Zoetrope (the Early 1800s)

Remember the Magic Lantern? The shows were practically everywhere by the 19th century and were getting better thanks to the Industrial Revolution. The Argand lamp and limelight had just been invented (1780 and 1826), and Episcopes and Magic Lanterns were brighter than ever. When incandescent bulbs and the Carbon Arc lamp were invented, the means to power these devices expanded exponentially.

Scientists began experimenting with animation, and the Phenakistiscope was developed in 1833. It demonstrated the ‘persistence of vision’ phenomenon, which is how the brain perceives tiny incremental differences in images as a continuous sequential movement.

The Phenakistiscope was practically a flat disc that demonstrated all the stages of a painted sequence at once when rotated. It was immediately followed by the Zoetrope. In this device, the sequence was displayed on the inside wall of a cylinder, and the viewer could see through a vertical slit in this spinning cylinder wall. The split separated individual parts of the sequence to promote sequential motion.

Although painted animations like the Phenakistiscope and Zoetrope were not projected, they are crucial to the history of projector because they laid the groundwork for future innovations.

Edison and His Kinetoscope (1891)

Thomas Edison and his team, led by William Dickson, were intrigued by the Phenakistiscope and Zoetrope. In 1891, they designed their version, this time with direct ties to projection – the Kinetoscope. This device was designed to project films through a peephole viewer window located at the top.

The Kinetoscope is considered the forerunner of the motion-picture film projector. Edison and Dickson placed a film strip in the device that passed between an electric bulb and lens rapidly to project images. Unfortunately, the film could only be viewed by one person at a time and had no sound.

Edison patented the Kinetoscope on August 31, 1897.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The Lumière Brothers and The Birth of Cinema (1894-1895)

Around this time, the Lumière brothers – Antoine and Louis – also became interested in film projection. In 1894 in Paris, the brothers saw a demonstration of Edison’s Kinetoscope. They had just taken over their father’s photography firm and were inspired to develop an even better film projector.

The Lumière brothers drew from the work of Léon Bouly, the French inventor, and modified the working of the sewing machine to produce intermittent motion. They used a simple hand crack instead of electricity, which allowed them to project 16 frames every second (Edison’s machine projected 40 frames per second). Nonetheless, their device was more lightweight and could shoot and project films with limelight. It was called the Cinématographe.

The first Cinématographe public screening was hosted in 1895. The machine is considered the direct ancestor of modern film projectors and is said to have brought on the birth of cinema. After the screening, the Cinématographe was replicated and spread across the world, used to screen movies.

Although the technology that powered this device was refined and modified over the years, the basic science and mechanism are used in cameras and film projectors and remain unchanged today.

Quick Fact: Despite the incredible impact the Cinématographe had on projection, the Lumière brothers did not believe their invention had a future and gradually re-focused their attention on other film inventions.

Permanent Movie Theaters (The early 1900s)

The Cinématographe was widely successful, and its worldwide application soon led to the birth of cinema. The first decade of this era comprised primarily of traveling roadshows that staged film screenings from one place to another. However, in 1905, The Nickelodeon, the first permanent movie theater, was established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The establishment of a permanent movie theater meant access to the electrical grid, which meant that film projectors could use carbon-arc lights and incandescent lamps, which were more powerful and consistent than other light sources. The Cinématographe, which was a combination of a film projector, printer, and camera, became less popular, and studios turned more and more to movie theaters.

Quick Fact: Kodak initially used celluloid films made of Cellulose Nitrate. This compound was extremely volatile and was also used as gunpowder. Consequently, projection booth fires were a real and constant danger until Kodak replaced the film stocks with celluloid acetate in 1909.

Color Film (the 1930s-1960s)

Once movie theaters became a norm, the next step was adding color to movie projection. This proved harder than photographic pioneers had initially envisioned, and research and development had been ongoing for almost a century. Finally, the first forms of color projection and photography were achieved in the 1930s when scientists added red, green, and blue chemical dyes to the silver emulsion.

In 1939, Hollywood released The Wizard of Oz, which was the first film ever to feature moving color film images. The technique used was based on the work of Young and Helmholtz over a century before that in their Trichromatic Color Theory.

The theory suggests that the average human eye has three types of light-sensitive cells that perceive primary colors, and the brain combines the information from these cells to produce what the eye perceives as full color.

Magic Lanterns were still in popular use around this time but were soon rendered obsolete by the new 35mm photographic slide film projectors. The projectors then entered homes, conference rooms, and classrooms around the 1960s as the preferred mode of projection.

Commercial Television (1950s)

The 1950s ushered in the era of commercial television. Although not all TV sets were technically projectors, the radio and electrical signal rendering, transmission, and reception advancements in this field were crucial to digital projection.

The first commercial TVs were loud, heavy, and mechanical. They were soon replaced by the sleeker electronic equivalent – the Cathode-Ray Tube. Like projectors, the CRT was achieved through centuries of experiments, research, and technological advancements.

Cathode Ray Tube (Still the 1950s)

Advancements in TV and photography often trickled down to projection. Still in the 1950s, the idea of using CRT as a display was applied to optical projection. Inventors added a lens in front of a CRT to display the images across great distances and on any viewing surface.

CRT phosphor screens were very limited in size, which meant that most TV units around this time were developed as projection TVs. Instead of viewing the small phosphor screen directly, viewers could see the image on a rear projection screen onto which a lens in the set would project images.

CRT projected televisions remained popular until the end of the 20th century before being replaced by DLP and LCD projectors. Color CRT projectors were first developed in the 1950s, but they took several more decades to be widely available to consumers.

Quick Fact: Inventors used three CRTs together to project individual Red, Green, and Blue channels at the same time and accurately display full-color images.

Immersive Projection Experiences (the 1960s)

In most cases, CRT projectors were unable to replace film projectors because they were not bright enough. Nonetheless, film projectors continued to permeate society. Viewers got to enjoy the first ever projection mapping experience in 1969 on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

Disney Land used 16mm projectors to create an illusion of ghostly faces on a black background. Similar projection elements became part of amusement park rides and have remained so to date. In the 1960s, IMAX projection also provided immersive projection experiences by increasing its lighting area.

IMAX used a gigantic projector placed in the middle of a huge dome on the floor like a planetarium. The projector covered an extra-wide curved surface, and the illuminated image looked unreal from below, where the audience sat. Overall, this was a thrilling time for projection.

Liquid Crystal Displays (the 1970s to 1980s)

Several decades after the advent of CRTs, decades of research and electronic component miniaturization brought on new ways to digitally display images. In the 1970s, the Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) was born. LCDs handle every point on an image as a pixel or discrete unit represented by one Liquid Crystal with an attached pair of electrodes.

LCD projectors include three different panels and several dichroic mirrors that split a beam of white light into RGB channels. The mirrors project the color channels through their equivalent panels, then a prism where they recombine into a full-color stream.

While the first functional LCD projector prototype was unveiled in 1971, it was only until the late 80s that LCD projectors with enough resolution to project videos were available.

Digital Light Processing (the 1980s)

Around the same time, the LCD was being developed to digitally project imagery, Texas Instrument scientists were working on Digital Light Processing (DLP). The DLP chip differed from LCD projectors in that it used a Digital Micro-Mirror Device to reflect light selectively and create an image.

Additionally, it featured thousands of tiny mirrors arranged on a DMD that moved between on and off positions rapidly to reflect the light beam. The beam, in this case, was a spinning color wheel that the DMD split into separate color channels.

The 1DLP chip color wheel created pulsing colors, which meant that the colors never fully merged into an individual beam like in LCD or CRT projectors. Consequently, initial DLP projectors could not reproduce as many colors as their counterparts.

Experts solved this problem through the improved 3-chip DLP. This configuration used a prism to separate the light beam into RGB channels and direct the individual color beams into dedicated DMDs. The resulting color channels then recombined to create full-color images.

LED and Laser Luminaries (1990s-Present)

By 1990, digital cameras had been commercialized. Microsoft PowerPoint was updated in 1997 to include image files, which accelerated the transition to digital images from 35 mm slides. This move also catalyzed the rise of digital projectors in training and practical usage.

Kodak discontinued the production of its Carousel slide projectors in 2004 ad Kodachrome film in 2009. 3DLP and 3LCD chips were continuously used in projection right until they were recently replaced by Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) and Lasers.

Lasers and LEDs emit RGB light as separate channels, each being directed to a dedicated DLP or LCD micro-mirror array and then combined into a full-color image. These modern luminaries are more discrete and efficient as RGB light sources than traditional bulbs and lamps. Moreover, they produce a wider variety of color combinations, projecting richer, more vivid images.

The 2000s have seen digital projectors improve in efficiency, brightness, and resolutions. DMD and LCD arrays are getting smaller even as they gain more pixels. Today, you can use a tiny handheld and pocket-size LED projector to watch a movie on virtually any surface.

In film, the projectors of the last decade have mostly been replaced by larger digital projectors. These devices produce large, vibrant 4K and 8K imagery without needing to maintain and store large reels. They also offer higher resolution than ever before.

As computer technology advances, software programs are now used to blend and stack several projectors together to produce large images. The images can be projected onto the interior or exterior of an entire building. The opportunities here are endless.

History of Projectors: Frequently Asked Questions

Who invented the projector?

The first movie projector was called the Zoopraxiscope and was invented in 1879 by Eadweard Muybridge, a British photographer. The Zoopraxiscope projected images rapidly from a rotating glass disk.

That said, the first actually successful movie projector is credited to the Lumière brothers, who based their invention on the work of Léon Bouly, the French inventor. The Lumière brothers’ invention was called the Cinématographe and was a printer, film camera, and projector all rolled into one.

When was the projector invented?

The Zoopraxiscope, which was the first movie projector, was invented in 1879 by Eadweard Muybridge. The Lumière brothers unveiled their invention, the Cinématographe, in 1895. In 1891, The Edison Company had developed the Kinetoscope, which was a one-person projector.

When was the overhead projector invented?

The first known overhead projector was developed by Edmond Becquerel, the French physicist, in 1853. The French inventor, optician, and instrument maker, Jules Duboscq, was the first to demonstrate it. In 1866, he devised an instrument that projected images onto a vertical screen from a horizontal surface.

Who invented the Kinetoscope?

The Kinetoscope was the immediate predecessor to the first movie film projector. It was invented by William Dickson and Thomas Edison in 1891 and allowed people to view films through a peephole viewer window located at the top of the device.

Due to the size of the window, films on the Kinetoscope could only be viewed by one person at a time. Edison patented the device on August 31, 1897.

How did the Kinetoscope work?

The Kinetoscope allowed people to view films one person at a time through a small peephole window at the top of the device. A film strip passed between an electric light bulb and a lens rapidly, displaying many frames within a second to create a viewing experience.

What is a projector?

A projector is an optical device that projects images onto a projection screen. It works by shining a light through a system of lenses to create an image, although modern models use lasers to project the images directly. In most cases, people use projectors to watch movies on large screens.

How does a movie projector work?

A movie projector displays images and video streams onto a screen for viewing. It continuously moves a film across a path, stopping each frame in front of a light source for a fraction of a second to create a continuous stream. This is also called perpetual vision.

What are the different types of projectors?

There are five main types of projectors that you can use at home, in school, or in the office. These are LED, LCED, DLP, LCOS, and laser projectors. Depending on their technology, projectors can also be classified into the following subtypes:

  • Mini Projector
  • Projector TV
  • Optoma Projector
  • 4k Projector
  • Pocket Projector
  • Mini Ray Projector
  • Light Projector
  • Nebula Projector, and more.

How can I use a projector?

In addition to watching movies and viewing picture slide shows, you can use a projector to play games on a large screen, project art or messages on walls, decorate a wall in your home, or paint murals.

When were ELMO projectors invented?

ELMO is a Japanese company known for producing quality cameras and projectors. The company released model A of its first 16mm projector in 1927. At that time, no other company had manufactured such a device in Japan, making ELMO a trendsetter.

When were digital projectors invented?

LCD projector prototypes were first available in 1971, although it was not until the late 1980s that LCDs with a resolution high enough to project video arrived. LCDs were quickly followed by digital projection technologies like LED and DLP in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

When were projectors introduced in schools?

The overhead projector was first used in police work for ID-ing purposes in the 1930s because it could project faces across screens. Around this time, it was also used for training in the pre-world war II Army. Overhead projectors then made their way into classrooms between the late 1950s and 1960s.


The history of projectors is long and nuanced, and we may never get the complete picture. In the early days, spectators were not always sure what they were viewing, and lantern projection was rarely distinguished from shadow plat. Projections were even perceived to be religious or magical experiences.

But while earlier accounts might be foggy, the developments in the 17th to 19th century that led to projection as we know it today are well documented. We can thank great minds like Thomas Edison, Edmond Becquerel, Eadweard Muybridge, and the Lumière brothers for this great invention.