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Magic Lantern Artifact Highlight #11

This magic lantern was donated to our collection in 1978 and dates to around 1900-1914. The magic lantern was an important precursor of the slide projector and the motion picture. It enlarged small positive transparency images and projected them onto a wall or a screen. The “magic” in the name originated with the first audiences who were amazed by colorful images “magically” appearing on the screen.

The magic lantern was invented in the 1600s probably by Christiaan Huygens, a Dutch scientist.

Christiaan Huygens

The first magic lanterns were designed as simple wood or metal boxes with a slide carrier, a candle as a light source, a combination of lenses and a chimney to diffuse the light, block drafts and direct the heat upwards. Some were illuminated with kerosene (paraffin or lamp oil), arc lamps (electric spark between two conductors) and limelight (created by igniting oxygen and hydrogen gases on a ball of lime). Limelight and arc lamps were dangerous because they were highly flammable and could even cause explosions, but they produced a brilliant white light strong enough to make projection shows possible for large audiences.

Kerosene lamps were not as bright, but they were safe to use at home, in schools, churches and in toy lanterns.

Placer Herald December 10, 1898

They were also used by salesmen advertising their merchandise. By the turn of the century, electric light made the magic lanterns even more popular.

The slides used in the lanterns were made of an image sandwiched between light-sensitive lantern glass and clear cover glass secured with tape. The images were hand colored and in the mid-1800s photographic slides created a new use for the magic lantern in lectures and family photo shows.

Placer Herald July 23, 1898

Some slides had “special effects”, like slipping plates and levers that were changed rapidly to show movement or pulleys and handles that rotated the image.

There were hundreds of companies that made magic lanterns in different styles and sizes, from toy ones to two and three-lens ones used by professional “lanternists.”

Magic lantern projection shows were a very popular form of entertainment during the 18th and 19th centuries and many were accompanied by music.

By the mid-19th century, stereoscopes with 3D views competed with the magic lanterns. They offered users a great variety of visual stimulation without the hassle of lighting, setup and risk of fires. By the 1930s overhead and slide projectors made lantern slides obsolete.

The magic lantern was donated to our collection by Dorothy D. Duncan, former director of the Placer County Historical Foundation and past president of the Sierra Doll Discovery Club.

Dorothy Duncan

Dorothy served in the United States Naval Reserve, better known as the WAVES, during WWII. She was a nutrition supervisor for the Navy Cadettes at Lassen Junior College in Susanville and taught home economics for Placer Union Schools District.