1863 - The Patent Ghost - John Pepper and Henry Dircks

Gabriel Picard - Oct 13, 2020 - 9 min read

I never thought I would be transported so far back in time to discover that the first traces of augmented reality were born in England in 1863. And yet I did! So here is the "scary" story of Henry Dircks and John Pepper.

The ghost-business

London 1858 - The context of the time is modern spiritualism. The worldly society wishes to converse with its deceased friends, lovers or family members, and this is what spiritism promises. Ghosts become the trend. The English then see in it a notion of enchantment, so the occult sciences are gaining in popularity...

Naturally, the rationalist scientific community describes all this as an illusion of charlatan and pseudo-science. The tone was set, and it certainly got out of hand more than once in the London coffeehouses. 

Spiritualists needed to give body to their discourse and they tried to convince their customers by using "magic lanterns" (ancestor of the projector) to diffuse ghost images and thus create the enhanced experience.

Aggressed by these low-level sleight of hand, Henry Dircks, a seasoned engineer who had understood the commercial appeal of ghosting, set out to find a much more satisfying projection technique. In 1862, his work gave birth to what he called the "Dircksian Phantasmagoria". Dircks' target was entertainment and more particularly horror theater, which was very much in vogue under the influence of spiritualism.


Thanks to the superiority of its device Dircks maintains that:

Technology in the service of enlightenment will drive out optical delusions in the service of humbug.

So it is to the dramatic arts industry that Dircks turns by presenting his work in theaters. Although Dircks' invention makes it possible for the first time to project a ghost on full foot, the installation is cumbersome and requires the modification of the structure of the theaters. Too expensive, Dircks will not be able to sell his technology.

In 1862, Dircks went to the Royal Polytechnic of London (now University of Westminster) for a presentation of his invention. The Royal Polytechnic was an institution very close to the sciences and aimed to demonstrate new technologies to the general public. It was in this context that Dircks demonstrated that he could create ghosts. News that piqued the curiosity of a man in the audience, the director of the institution, John Pepper.

The Ghost Patent

Professor John Henry Pepper was known internationally as a showman and lecturer in popular science. After the presentation of Dircks, he realized that it was possible to slightly modify the engineer's technique to integrate it more easily into existing theater.

The Dirksian Phantasmagoria was an illusion that used reflective glass perpendicular to the theater floor, reflecting the actors directly under the audience.

Square Quote from Skakespear, Marx, Keynes, and the Language of Re Enchantment by Martin Harries

Pepper tilted the glass at a 45-degree angle and hid the actors in a pit in front of the audience.

Pepper's Ghost effect

Pepper demonstrated the effect during a scene from Charles Dickens' The Haunted Man. The effect was a great success and was named Pepper's Ghost. The two fathers of the ghosts reached an agreement by filing a joint patent for The Patent Ghost, and Dircks assigned his financial rights to Pepper. The relationship between Dircks and Pepper was summarized in an article published in 1863 in The Spectator magazine.

The Patent Ghost, from The Spectator

The Patent Ghost, from The Spectator


Ghosts and Augmented Reality

The Pepper's Ghost is technically the first representation of what is now considered a hologram. Attention, here it is a reflection without depth. Even if the current holographic technologies are also based on a system of reflections, what defines a hologram such as one conceives it today relates to the relief and thus of the 3 dimension. There is in the hologram a concept of volume which was not present in the "flat" representations of Pepper' S Ghost. However these ghosts answer well to the vision which one makes of an augmented reality: like a layer which is superimposed and is integrated into reality.

Does the ghost of Snapchat have anything to do with Pepper's Ghost?

The answer is simple: NO.

Even if the Giant of mobile augmented reality chose the ghost as its logo, the coincidence with Pepper's Ghost is unfounded. The Snapchat ghost illustrates the ephemeral nature of messages and photos that appear and disappear after a few seconds of consultation. It is this concept that has made the application famous.

Gabriel Picard
Gabriel Picard
Creative Director, Cofounder
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