Etienne-Gaspard Robertson was born in Liege and, like many young men of means, he studied philosophy, art, and science at university, and for short time, became a professor of optics. But by the early 1790s, he had moved to Paris, hoping to earn a living as an artist, meanwhile making ends meet as a tutor. But his interest in optics never really subsided. Armed with letters of introduction from a university mentor, Robertson attended lectures with Jacques Charles, who was then one of the famous natural scientists in Europe, but is best remembered now, if at all, as the inventor of hydrogen balloon flight.
In 1796, after a few years of studying light and refraction, Robertson came up with an idea that he hoped would make his name and fortune: a giant Archimedes Mirror that would concentrate the sun’s rays into a single point with enough precision and intensity to set fire to British ships at sea. In the eighteenth century, this idea wasn’t entirely implausible. Weaponry was still relatively unsophisticated and the science of optics was in its infancy. A few decades before, in 1847, Comte de Buffon had had theorized, and even experimented, with weaponized mirrors. In the end, Buffon and others realized that to be truly a success, one would need expertly crafted and unrealistically enormous mirrors, not to mention a perfectly sunny day. But Robertson believed that he had solved Buffon’s limitations and pitched the idea to government officials in Liege with success. But in Paris, officials were less than impressed, responding first with boredom, then open mockery. Disappointed, Robertson abandoned the idea, but by then he had something far more spectacular in mind.
In an 1855 article in Household Words, Charles Dickens called Robertson “a charmer who charmed wisely…a born conjurer” who was “gifted with a predominant taste in natural science.” From his years of study, Robertson understood the science behind the optical illusions, chemical reactions, and acoustic anomalies that priests and shaman used for millennia to impress and intimidate followers. He had once seen a charlatan evoke “spirits” by releasing invisible gases into the lamp of a magic lantern. Robertson understood how the trick worked, but the audience was terrified.
Reeling in the aftermath of the Revolution, people seemed especially spooked. Dickens describes that, ‘Crowds were flocking daily to the gardens of the Palais Royale to gape at the shadow of a chimney, which, at a certain hour of the day, resembled the figure of Louis the Sixteenth. Thousands believed that the shadow of the king upon whom they had trampled haunted the Parisians by appearing daily in his garden” (136). Alarmed by a crowd of Parisians, still living in fear and awe of a dead king, the police had the chimney knocked down.
In this highly charged political climate, Robertson found a way of uniting science and theater, launching his own magic lantern show, but with some improvements. He meticulously painted slides of hideous ghouls and goblins and devised a way of stacking the slides on top of each other and manipulating them in such a way that the projections seemed to move—birds flew—or morph—faces turned to skeletons.
Robertson’s most notable innovation was mounting the magic lantern on wheels, so that he could easily adjust the size of the projection, enlarging the image and giving the effect that the ghost was drawing nearer, even lunging, at the audience. He made so many alterations and improvements to the basic magic lantern design that he obtained a patent on an instrument he called the “Fantoscope,” playing off the public fascination with telescopes and microscopes. Any “scope” that gave special vision to its user looked like magic to the popular imagination, but a machine that could see phantoms and specters blurred the lines between science and magic for an audience that couldn’t easily tell the difference. Robertson also drew from “natural magic” as David Brewster would later call it, incorporating galvanism and other chemical reactions into his performance, as well as stage tricks like projecting onto glass that was invisible to the audience.
To “conjure” spirits, Robertson combined objects and talismans, along with chemicals, in a brazier on stage, then projected slides onto the smoke itself. When a man in the audience asked Robertson to summon the ghost of Marat, he mixed together glasses of “blood” (according to his narration), a bottle of “vitriol,” and pages from Jacobin newspapers and pamphlets. The combination of chemicals and fuel for the fire burned brightly in varying colors. Then Robertson projected an image of Marat, recognizable in his trademark red cap. The effect was so realistic that some in the audience wept from seeing his face again.
Ghosts of the Revolution proved popular and made frequent appearances, but when one spectator asked for Louis XVI to appear, Robertson claimed the he had lost that particular formula, and it was thus impossible that kings would ever appear in France again. Almost immediately, the French police intervened, and the phantasmagoria met the same fate as the Palais Royale chimney.
In a very literal way, phantasmagoria were a projection of the audience’s anxieties—and the heightened emotional investment contributed to the show’s effectiveness. The superstition that drew thousands of people to gawk at a chimney’s shadow, brought them to the phantasmagoria. The show was so popular that it was often mentioned in travel writing and proto-guidebooks, but under increasingly political pressure and suffering from chronic health problems, Robertson left Paris.
But the demand for phantasmagoria didn’t subside, and his former employees and stage hands saw an open opportunity. Knowing how the effects and technology worked, they built their own fantoscope, and began staging performances. Since Robertson had taken every precaution to protect his innovation and intellectual property, he quickly filed suit against them. In the very public and widely publicized case that followed, Robertson had to prove that his patent had been violated by openly describing the exact specifications of the fantoscope. The details of every effect were discussed, published, and circulated in national and international newspapers. Variations on Robertson’s theme spread throughout France and, soon, to England, where, as Terry Castle says, phantasmagoria “met with—if possible—an even more enthusiastic reception.” Robertson had drawn much of his material from English gothic novels, so the shows were already well suited for British taste, and in the United Kingdom, the spectre of revolution was a horror within itself.