How Long has Projection Technology Been Around?

Not to be dramatic, but technically, humans have been projecting images onto surfaces using light for thousands of years. Honestly, probably about 100,000. And that’s only if we were the first ones to do it. Feasibly, Neanderthals and Denisovans would have been equally capable of coming up with this idea. Okay, you’re thinking this sounds ridiculous. But here’s the thing – to project an image, all you need is a surface to cast it on and a light source behind it. Hand shadows on rock walls, anyone? Yup. Simple as that. No one knows when the first person made a shadow puppet in the light of a night fire, but it’s a pretty sure bet it was a really long time ago.

But not to sit on the anthropology of the projector too long; this isn’t a journal. Let’s get to the timeline part – it’s more fun to look at.

Timeline of the Evolution of Projection Technology

Around 0 CE, Asia: The Han Dynasty uses shadows and mirrors to cast images onto walls for aesthetic purposes. Meanwhile, projected puppet shows became popular all over Southeast Asia. These traditions still exist today.

  • 13th Century: These projection technologies reach the Arab Gulf.
  • 1515 CE, Italy: Leonardo DaVinci draws plans for a projector box that uses light to cast images etched into glass slides. Did he make one, though? Unclear.
  • 17th Century: The traditional Asian projection technologies reach Europe when a missionary from France returns from a trip to China.
  • 1659 CE, France: A Dutch scientist writes to a colleague about a device called “The Magic Lantern,” which is essentially the device DaVinci drew over a century before.
  • Late 17th Century, Europe: Improvements in concave mirror technology, and later in adding gears to the projector box, colorful moving images became possible, as did improvements in quality of images and how far images can be cast. 
  • 1780 CE, Republic of Geneva: Scientist and inventor creates the Armand Lamp; so named for the scientist himself, which is 6x brighter than a typical oil lamp, improving projection technology.
  • 19th Century: Technology in lighting and visual media continue to develop, with inventions like the limelight, the Bude Light, the advent of electricity and controlled electrical outputs, and improvements in crafting clear and accurate lenses.
  • 1879 CE, England: British photographer invents the first “movie” projector, which uses glass slides of film that rotate quickly to give the impression of a moving picture.
  • 1888 CE, England: A French inventor patents a new type of movie projector, which combines a motion picture camera with a projector. He films and presents the first moving film with the device.
  • 1889 CE, US: Kodak introduces cellulite celluloid film, and less than 2 years later it becomes the main mode of projecting images.
  • 1925 CE, US: The filmstrip projector allows school teachers and military officers alike a portable advice on which to present films and educational videos.
  • 1960 CE: The overhead projector is introduced. We all remember these clunky things and the clear plastic sheets teachers used to cast onto the screen over the chalkboard.
  • 1980 CE: Digital projection panels change everything. Now, you can hook a projector up to a computer and it can digitally cast any image the computer wants it to.

How Computers brought Projection Tech into the 21st Century

So, we got to what’s essentially the modern projector and screen setup by 1980. What’s happened since then? A lot, actually; projection technology was directly affected at every improvement in computer technology. By 1984, you could have an LCD projector in your home, making the first “real” home theaters possible. In 1990, the first computer projector was introduced. It combined the projector and the digital projection panel, creating a fully-integrated projecting system that worked with virtually any computer. In 1992 we get the video projector, which receives a video signal, and then uses a system of lenses to project the intended image on the screen.

This is where things go from focusing on optimizing the mode of image projection, to an obsessive drive to optimize the quality of the image instead. You’ll notice this period of the ‘90’s to today is all about audiovisual tech. 4K HDTV is a thing now, as is watching 3D movies in the comfort of your home theater. Video games look creepy-real – almost uncanny, and CGI in movies is nearly flawless. Digital ads are everywhere, and some cell phones have screens nicer than most laptops. Projection technology is right in the thick of it; the first 3D projector is 12 years old now. This projector presented 2 versions of the film at the same time, making a movie look 3D when you wear those red-and-blue-lensed glasses. And in the last couple years, what do you know? – They’ve made a 4K projector for home theaters.

But do Home Theater Projectors stand up to 4K Screens?

Just because you’re going for the true movie theater vibe – you know: a huge projection screen, projector, surround sound, rows of theater-style recliners – you’re not sacrificing quality for authenticity with a projector. When you’re shopping around for a top-notch projector/screen setup, but aren’t sure if you can get the color and pixel quality you’d get with a 4K TV, now you’re sure. Pretty much the only difference between a TV and a projector is the space factor now, which makes choosing a lot less stressful.