June 21, 2024

Pepper’s Ghost

Pepper’s Ghost is an optical illusion that became the toast of Victorian England. Its creator was one of the first celebrity scientists.

John Henry Pepper
John Henry Pepper

John Henry Pepper was born in Westminster, London, in June 1821. His father was a civil engineer, and his upbringing was unremarkable.

Pepper attended King’s College in London where he showed a flair for science, with a particular facility for chemistry. He especially enjoyed conducting experiments with volatile elements; Pepper later joked about the amount of broken glass he left in his wake, while a student.

When he finished school he found a position as an assistant lecturer at the Granger School of Medicine.

The Royal Polytechnic Institue, London
The Royal Polytechnic Institute, London

In 1847, Pepper gave his first lecture at the Royal Polytechnic Institute. The institute had been founded a decade earlier by Sir George Calley, a successful inventor who wanted to encourage public interest in science.

It was a booming field.

In the 19th century, technological advances and new ideas combined to create rapid progress in a number of scientific disciplines. The public followed these developments avidly, eagerly waiting to be dazzled by the next modern marvel.

The Polytechnic Institute was designed with this in mind.

‘The two main halls contained an amazing variety of exhibits (not all scientific) including an orrery, a model pull-apart ear, brick and tile-making machinery, a stuffed pig and a waxen model of the Resurrection. Visitors paid one shilling to look at the exhibits.’


– ‘John Henry Pepper and His Contribution to Science’, Dr Bill Palmer

There were also scientific lectures and live experiments.

Professor Pepper and the Giant Induction Coil
Professor Pepper and the Giant Induction Coil

Pepper joined the Institute full time in 1848 and was made a director in 1850. He had a knack for showmanship that belied his academic background.

Billed as ‘Professor Pepper’, despite not having formally attained that title, Pepper began by demonstrating chemical reactions with different compounds. He then moved to electricity, which the public had a particular fascination with.

One of Pepper’s most popular displays was the ‘Giant Induction Coil’.

An induction coil is a type of transformer, featuring two coils of metal, tightly wound around an iron core. When electricity is passed through the arrangement, it dramatically ‘sparks’.

Pepper’s coil was several metres long, and produced sparks up to 15 cm. He capped the performance by having one of his electric bolts shatter a glass pane.

He presented other marvels, including (what was billed as) the world’s largest and smallest photographs, a harp that played by itself (the strings were moved by vibrations), and a live trapeze act, to demonstrate the mechanisms responsible for balance.

Pepper was soon the Polytechnic Institute’s number one drawcard, and he became famous throughout England. Queen Victoria attended one of his performances, in 1855.

Pepper's Ghost in operation
Pepper’s Ghost in operation

Pepper left the institute briefly in 1858, after a dispute over his remuneration. When attendances fell he was lured back, and was made Managing Director in 1861.

He now set to finding new wonders, to restore its prestige.

Also in 1858, Pepper had become aware of the work of Henry Dircks. Dircks was an engineer who had made a presentation to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, on the subject of a theoretical ‘phantasmagoria’.

Dircks’ idea was for the theatre.

‘A compartment would be located under the seating area in a theatre. Inside, an actor would be illuminated by a bright light. That light would be reflected off a large pane of glass on stage. While the glass would be invisible to the audience, the reflection would not be, and it would seem as though a ghost-like apparition was present.’


– ‘How Pepper’s Ghost Became the Toast of London’, Jake Rossen

While Dirck had devised the illusion, lacking any connection to the entertainment industry he had not been able to stage it. Now in charge of the Polytechnic, Pepper approached him to form a partnership.

The pair refined Dircks’ idea and filed a joint patent. Not thinking it would amount to anything, Dircks signed over the financial rights to Pepper.

Diagram of Pepper's Ghost
Diagram of Pepper’s Ghost

Pepper would incorporate the phantasmagoria into another of his new ideas: a variety show, to be held over the Christmas holidays. This would feature the usual scientific exhibits, talks and demonstrations, alongside live music, comedy, and pantomime.

For the 1862 show, Pepper included a play based on the Charles Dickens short story, ‘The Haunted Man’. His new phantasmagoria would supply the production’s ghost.

A hidden compartment was built below the Polytechnic’s theatre, and a sheet of glass installed invisibly on stage at an angle of 45 degrees.

Pepper staged a private run through of the play, with the ghost, to a select audience of VIPs. He had been planning on explaining how the illusion worked afterwards, but they were so stunned that he decided to keep it a secret instead.

When the show opened to the public, the ghost caused a sensation.

‘This astonishing optical effect, in which a living being walks through the apparently solid image of another person, is the most startling novelty produced this season, at any place of entertainment.’


– Review in ‘The Times’, December 1862

Spurred on by the hyperbolic press coverage, people flocked to the Polytechnic’s show. Demand for tickets was so strong that it was extended for several months, then the play itself was staged as a standalone attraction.

The Prince and Princess of Wales were among the attendees.

Poster advertising The Haunted Man
Poster advertising The Haunted Man

Pepper enjoyed a financial bonanza from the show, taking in the equivalent of $1.5 million in receipts.

This caused a falling out with Dircks; he was not obligated to share any of the revenue with his ‘partner’, and so he did not. The following year Dircks took Pepper to court, triggering an acrimonious, years-long legal battle that ended in stalemate.

Both men would eventually write books claiming to be primarily responsible for creating the illusion. To Dircks’s fury, Pepper’s much higher profile meant that it quickly came to be known by the name it still bears today: Pepper’s Ghost.

John Henry Pepper operating his ghost
Pepper operating his ghost

Pepper would continue to deploy the illusion in subsequent stage shows. He also presented a talk on the supernatural, evocatively titled the ‘Strange Lecture’, which would be augmented by images of ghouls and demons, whirling about him on stage.

These both proved popular, and for a time Pepper and his ghost were the toast of London; lauded, critically acclaimed, and financially successful.

But the success of the illusion would also bring about its downfall.

The trick behind Pepper’s Ghost was relatively straightforward, once the secret was leaked it was much imitated. While Pepper held a patent, it was difficult to enforce; research quickly uncovered descriptions of similar effects, dating back to the beginning of the century.

Pepper’s Ghost was also somewhat limited and was usually deployed in the same fashion; a ghostly apparition, centre stage. While exciting when first seen, the public quickly tired of it, and moved on to the next novelty.

The Royal Polytechnic Institute, interior
The Royal Polytechnic Institute, interior

The same was eventually true for the Polytechnic Institute. It began to lose money, its attractions now seen as old fashioned.

Pepper staged the last Christmas show in 1871, he left the organisation altogether the following year. It closed in 1881.

But it would not disappear altogether. The property was acquired by Christian philanthropist Quinton Hogg, who supplied significant funds for it to be redeveloped into a more traditional institute of learning.

It re-opened in 1882 as the ‘Polytechnic Regent Street’, and in the 20th century would be expanded and rebadged as the University of Westminster. It continues to operate to this day.

John Henry Pepper delivering a lecture
Pepper delivering a lecture

Having left the Polytechnic, Pepper now took his show on the road.

Between 1874 – 1879 he toured extensively across America and Canada. By this time he had a wife, Mary, and son; they accompanied him on his travels.

His show was much as he had presented in London: scientific lectures, experiments, and optical illusions, including Pepper’s Ghost.

In 1879 he was invited to Australia by the Melbourne based ‘Lecture Association.’ He and his family arrived in July, and he made his first appearance before a sold-out audience four nights later.

Pepper spent the next two years touring the country, visiting Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales. In 1881 he arrived in Queensland and decided to settle, building a house in the Brisbane suburb of Ashgrove.

Scientists were in short supply in the Australian colonies, Pepper did some consulting work for the local government. He also gave paid lectures and talks in local schools.

Pepper's ad in the Brisbane Courier
Pepper’s ad in the Brisbane Courier

In 1882, a strong drought gripped southeast Queensland.

Likely hoping to drum up publicity for upcoming appearances, Pepper decided to intervene. He had read about seeding clouds – a technique of artificially generating rain by implanting clouds with particles – and decided it was worth a try.

Pepper took out a front-page ad in the Brisbane Courier, promising a scientific experiment of rainmaking.

The event was set for the first week of February, at Eagle Farm racecourse. A fee of sixpence would be charged for attendance; 700 people turned up to watch.

Pepper had gathered a number of different means to launch material at the sky, including swivel guns, rockets from a Navy sloop, and a quantity of gunpowder. Although his request to start a large bonfire was denied.

The event itself quickly degenerated into chaos.

Pepper’s assistants overfilled one of the guns, causing the entire device to explode. Lacking experience with the rockets, they struggled to control their launch, and nearly hit the crowd with one misdirected missile.

A local paper described it as a ‘pseudo-scientific farce’. Pepper later published a letter defending himself, complaining that no other scientists had tried to help him.

The Shane Warne hologram: produced by Pepper's Ghost
The Shane Warne hologram: produced by Pepper’s Ghost

Pepper lived in Brisbane for 8 years, before returning to England in 1889. Now retired, he lived out his final years in East London, writing books on his scientific interests.

He died in 1900.

While Pepper’s Ghost is rarely used on stage any longer, it has had a surprisingly enduring legacy.

It is often used in museum exhibits where discrete transitions between images are required. It is also used to create 3D renders of people from 2D images; as one example, the sports museum at the MCG uses Pepper’s Ghost to create a hologram-like image of Australian cricketer Shane Warne.

It is also used in the visual arts, where its eerie effects can be utilised to generate an emotional response.

Pepper's Ghost in action: the Teleprompter
Pepper’s Ghost in action: the Teleprompter

Its impact on television is less obvious, but even more pronounced.

The Teleprompter, the ubiquitous device used by TV presenters around the world, uses Pepper’s Ghost to reflect text onto a screen, where it can be easily read.


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