The Revolutionary Radioptican Home Entertainment System

Radioptican and Susan Wealthy Orvis' photograph of Jerusalem's wailing wall

Susan Wealthy Orvis travelled to Jerusalem on vacation in 1908 just as the Young Turk revolution was happening. She saw all the holy sites, rode a camel, and visited the Wailing Wall. Naturally she took photographs. Several years later, her colleague Adelaide Dwight wrote about the comings and goings in Talas for The Orient, a missionary newspaper in Constantinople. She reported on the evening’s entertainment, where a talk on “a most interesting trip to Jerusalem [was] given by Miss Orvis, and illustrated by Mr. [Herbert] Irwin with pictures on the radioptican.” The radioptican was the latest system in home entertainment, though it was a bit of a dangerous undertaking.

Manufactured by several American companies, it was a machine that projected pictures through a strong lens onto a screen or light-coloured wall “by means of a reflected light.” As one advertisement said, “photographs, illustrations, original paintings, drawings, clippings, or any other opaque objects are projected in their natural colours, but enlarged to from 3 to 7 feet in diameter.”

There was a 3.5-inch double convex lens in the front, and two ventilators on top “to keep the housing cool.” This was important for the electric models, but essential for the gas-flame unit. Postcards and photographs were the most popular pictures to project. The operator would slide one into a holder on the back, and the light inside would reflect off the image, through the lens, and onto the wall. The radioptican only worked in total darkness. That was fine for the Talas focus, as electricity was either non-existent or unreliable. It was big hit.

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