Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Pepper’s Ghost Illusion

In the 1860s John Henry Pepper an analytic chemist, and Henry Dircks, a civil engineer, collaborated upon an invention that allowed theatre attendees to see a ghost appear out of nowhere on various theatre stages around London. 

During the Victorian era, people were fascinated with anything connected to death and the afterlife. 

Dircks who already had the basics of this illusion worked out, joined with Pepper to develop a way, to cash in on this public fascination. They shocked and entertained theatre audiences, by presenting them with a ghost that seemingly moved independently upon the stage.

Henry Dircks

The two men’s illusion was first seen on Christmas Eve in 1862, during a staging of Charles Dickens’ The Haunted House. To the audience's amazement, a ghost appeared on the stage next to an actor at a desk. The illusion then toured around varies venues in England. The playbills of the time proclaimed:


The Ghost! The Ghost! The Ghost!




Pepper and Dircks used an optical trick to pull off this illusion. They had a powerful lantern, that projected an image of an actor in costume, positioned below the stage in the theatre, which then was reflected upon a huge angled pane of glass, placed upon the stage. 

The ghost then appeared to be on the stage. The audience could not see this pane of glass since the scene was presented in the dark. 

This illusion made the ghost seem to appear out of nowhere. When this powerful lantern light was moved forward or back below the stage, it gave the illusion the spirit was moving and growing or decreasing in size. This guaranteed the audience was awestruck.

Even though Henry Dircks actually had the basic invention worked out. Pepper’s contribution was to adapt the design so it could be used effectively in theatres. 

But when the two men parted ways, they both later claimed the invention as their own. It has been known ever since--to some unfairly--as “Pepper’s Ghost.” 

This illusion is still used today by Haunted Houses and magicians.

John Henry Pepper

The many visitors who have ridden the Haunted House ride at Disneyland or Disney World have seen the Pepper’s Ghost illusion-- the ballroom of the Haunted Mansion is the largest Pepper's Ghost illusion ever built.

Pepper's ghost illusion at Disney

* John Henry Pepper became director of the London Polytechnic Institute. Pepper liked to make science entertaining. He often used optical illusions in presentations, in order, to explain complicated concepts.

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