A key figure in establishing a history of handmade machines devised to make moving images is Danish-born inventor and singer Thomas Wilfred. Wilfred believed that he had created “the eighth art,” which he dubbed “lumia,” or compositions of light in time. “The artist’s sole medium of expression is light,” he wrote in 1947. A piecemeal transcendentalist, Wilfred sought to represent “the universal rhythmic flow” in his art and produced roughly forty works before his death in 1968. At present, only eighteen of his lumia survive, and even fewer are operational (Clare Boothe Luce’s is in storage at the Honolulu Academy of Arts). He employed reflective mirrors, hand-painted glass discs, and bent pieces of metal–all housed in a screened wooden cabinet, or, in one case, mounted on an walnut “tea wagon”–to transform beams of light produced by a series of lamps and lenses. Wilfred performed and displayed his work in a variety of settings, from the 1934 World’s Fair to Carnegie Hall to a department store in Ohio. In 1958 and 1959, different lumia compositions were on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. At various times, Wilfred conceived of using lumia for theater design, for recitals in light, as home-entertainment systems, as fine-art objects, and even as medical devices that could help soothe women going into labor or pacify those engaging in psychotherapy.
Wilfred built his first “light box” in 1905, which he pieced together from a cigar box, a small electric lamp, and some colored glass. While in Paris, he refined his initial creation into a contraption comprising “several wooden boxes, a few glass lenses, and a real screen.” Driven by a desire to surpass his color organ predecessors Castel, Rimington, and Bainbridge, he continued to refine and rethink his efforts. By 1921, Wilfred had realized his first full-fledged light instrument, the Clavilux, a far more elaborate and intricate color organ capable of producing works of extreme variety and intensity. The Clavilux apparatus is concealed in a wooden housing and uses a reflective mirror and bent pieces of metal to shape light thrown by a series of lamps and lenses. A series of projectors then cast images onto a screen or surface. The Clavilux player controls the desired hues and shapes via a piano-like keyboard. The results are slowly morphing apparitions of shifting form and vibrant color, an inner-mounting flame of smoky brilliance.