Go back to article: Philip Carpenter and the convergence of science and entertainment in the early-nineteenth century instrument trade


By the 1840s certain instrument makers had diversified sufficiently to be considered a different trade entirely. These were practitioners of the optical media trade and, later, the magic lantern trade. Carpenter’s business became Carpenter & Westley in 1837, going on to become one of the major drivers of the lantern and domestic media markets. Other instrument makers such as Newton & Co. (who had been opticians and globe makers) similarly shifted into the popular entertainment market and, by the end of the century, almost completely dedicating themselves to lantern slide retail (Robinson, Herbert and Crangle, 2001, pp 209–210). These businesses were joined in the second half of the nineteenth century by other manufacturers and retailers that were not from instrument manufacturing backgrounds. Frederick York started out selling photographic equipment in 1863, but later sold stereoviews and lantern slides as York & Son (Robinson, Herbert and Crangle, 2001, pp 330–331); W C Hughes first took over a chemist’s business in 1879, later manufacturing lanterns and film equipment (Robinson, Herbert and Crangle, 2001, p 141). These later entrants into the optical entertainment market show that the trade had completely divested itself of its earlier connections with the scientific instrument trade. It had now absorbed cognate media practices from the trade in photographic equipment and chemicals, the toy trade and, at the very end of the century, the rapidly expanding trade in cinematic equipment.

The Kaleidoscope, Improved Phantasmagoria Lantern and Microcosm were key moments in the expansion of the market for popular media entertainment in the early nineteenth century and indicate how instrument makers could transform their businesses to take advantage of new commercial opportunities. Through manufacturing innovations, clever marketing and exploitation of economic changes at the beginning of the century, Carpenter was able to build a powerful presence in the public imagination as a supplier of optical entertainments. As I have shown, these were most often consumed for their appeal to novelty and wonderment, but there was also an important discourse on education and scientific value underpinning these appeals. Harking back to an older conception of science, where experimental practitioners remained close to natural magic, Carpenter understood that science already possessed an enduring kernel of wonderment and that this could be utilised as a seductive draw to curious consumers. As one reviewer put it, he sold ‘instruments to instruct and astonish at one glance’ (‘The Microcosm’, 1827, p 24). This is evident in all of Carpenter’s trade literature, which ostensibly provided information for scientific education, but betrayed a giddy excitement at the forms of the natural world. In Companion to the Microcosm Carpenter says of the Green Polyp:

The most surprising part in the history of these animals, is that when one of them is cut in two, each part soon becomes a perfect polype, or if the head is slit, each becomes a perfect head, so that by going on to slit the heads as they grow, we may form polypes with as many heads as we please. If the different portions of the polypes which have been divided be placed end to end and gently pushed together, the parts will unite, and thus polypes may be formed of the head of one and the body of the other. By pushing the polype into the mouth of another, so that their heads may be brought into contact, and kept in that situation for some time they will unite, and form one animal, and form one animal but with twice the number of arms. A polype may be turned inside out like a glove, so that the lining of its stomach becomes the outer skin, and it will live and perform all its functions as before. (1827, pp 18–19)

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170707/007