Shining a Light on Magic Lanterns

Imagine it’s 1955. You’re out by Silverwood Lake, enjoying summer vacation. The sun is hot on the shore and you can hear your dad snapping away, taking pictures of you, mom, and your little brother. You have a feeling that these pictures are going to come up at the next family reunion; your dad just got a new slide projector and he can’t get enough of it. Maybe for the rest of vacation you’ll hide in the water.

But what came before the slide projector? A device invented, most likely by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, in the 1600s. Lit up from within by candlelight, film slides projected pictures on the walls and sometimes even moved. When early audiences saw these images – some scary, some awe-inspiring – suddenly appear on the wall, as if by magic, the device was named the Magic Lantern.

Currently on display in the Inventing a Better Life exhibit, located in the Carriage Barn.

Over time, the lanterns worked using oil lamps instead of candlelight. Now, of course, they are powered by electricity and are known as “slide projectors”. However, by the 1700s the Magic Lantern was a common form of entertainment and education. The earliest show held in the United States for “the Entertainment of the Curious” took place in Salem, Massachusetts on December 3, 1743. Shows were exciting and popular. To catch a glimpse of history, you can visit Santa Fe Springs’ own Magic Lantern at the Heritage Park Carriage Barn and Historical Museum.

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