Stillwater History: Magic Lanterns and Technological Obsolescence

Story provided by Amelia Chamberlain, Director of Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar

The Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar’s exhibit and programmatic focus in 2020 is on preservation; in particular, preservation of family heirlooms. Throughout the year, a variety of changing exhibits, programs, and demonstrations will assist Museum visitors in caring for their families’ cherished objects, memories, and memorabilia. Each month will feature a different theme. January’s focus was preserving memories through oral histories; February is photographs and slides; and in March, the focus will be on books (with an emphasis on cookbooks, family recipes, and the stories behind them). 

Since so many artifacts that are part of the Museum’s collection are historic in nature, many are also technologically obsolete; that is, what was once the most current product has been replaced by an even newer one. Some examples of new technologies superseding old ones include metal replacing rock in hand tools, the telephone displacing the telegraph, automobiles ousting the horse and buggy, and CDs and DVDs taking the place of audiotapes and videocassettes. In some cases, when one item becomes obsolete, it also affects accessory items. For example, buggy whips (an object used in driving a buggy) also became obsolete when people started traveling in cars instead of in horse-drawn buggies. 

The Stillwater History Museum has a number of image projection devices or projectors in its collection that provide an overview of the changes in technology in these devices. A projector is an optical device that projects an image (sometimes they are moving images) onto a flat surface such as a wall or a projection screen. Projectors create an image by shining a light through a small transparent lens. The oldest projector in the Museum’s collection is what was called a “magic lantern.” Also in the collection are a “filmstrip” projector, a “Kodascope Eight,” a 16 mm Craig by Kalart “Projecto-Editor,” a “Project-o-Scope,” and a Kodak carousel slide projector. 

The magic lantern is best known for projecting still images, but moving images could be projected by pulling slides through a track in front of the lens. The magic lantern used a concave mirror to reflect and direct light from a lamp through a small sheet of glass (a slide) that had an image painted on it. A focusing lens at the front of the apparatus projected the image onto a wall or screen. 

The magic lantern was very popular for entertainment and educational purposes in the 18th and 19th centuries, but this popularity decreased with the introduction of movies in the 1890s. The magic lantern was a common way to project images until slide projectors came into widespread use during the 1950s. Between the 1950s and 1990s slide projectors for 35mm film slides were used for educational presentations and as a form of entertainment. With the invention of the movie projector, it became possible to view continuously projected moving images as a long strip of film passed in from a lens backlit by a light bulb. Image projection has now turned digital and is continuing to evolve into laser technology. Today’s projector-based touch-screen technology turns any flat surface into a screen that you can interact with using your hands. The evolution of display technologies has gone beyond simple pretty projections for use at events. Now, projection can be used in camouflage and wearable technology. 

A few of the Magic Lantern and Projectors from the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar’s collection include:

1.  “Magic Lantern” Slide Projector. This small projector was also known as a “nursery lantern” and was produced by the Ernst Plank Co. (E.P. Co.) in Germany during the 1920s or 1930s. Lanterns such as this had been popular since the 18th century. This magic lantern included a kerosene lamp and projected a 2 feet by 2 feet image painted on a glass slide onto a wall. The lantern could be taken apart to fit in a box and the directions for operation were printed on the box’s lid. 

2. Filmstrip projector made of red tin with a faux wood finish and brass fittings. A 40-watt electric light bulb was the light source, and a hand crank was turned to advance the paper film. It included an electric gold cord with a brown plastic plug. Produced by the Movie-Jecktor Company circa 1930. The filmstrip is in the form of a paper roll wound around a wooden dowel with a painted color cartoon featuring Tom Mix in “Rustler’s Defeat.” (Note: Tom Mix (1880–1940) was an American motion-picture actor, director, and writer whose career spanned from 1910 to 1935. During this time he appeared in 270 films and established himself as the screen’s most popular cowboy star.) 

3. Kodascope Eight, an 8 mm movie projector. Kodascope is a name created by Eastman Kodak Company for the projector it placed on the market in 1923. 

4. 16 mm Craig by Kalart “Projecto-Editor.” This device was used to edit and splice films. 

5. 1950s “Project-o-Scope.” An enlarger used to project a drawing, picture, or other images onto paper taped to a wall that can then be traced to any size. 

6. Kodak carousel slide projector. A carousel slide projector is a slide projector that uses a rotary tray to store slides, to project slide photographs, and to create slideshows. It was first patented on May 11, 1965. A patent for the rotary tray was granted in 1966. The tray could hold 80 or 140 35mm slides. The Kodak Carousel projector was discontinued in October 2004. 

Upcoming Programs and Exhibits at the Sheerar 

With February’s focus on photography, the Museum will be offering a free family-friendly activity “Hand Tinting Historic Photographs” for our regularly scheduled Second Saturday and Third Thursday program on Sat., Feb. 8th, 2020, from 1 to 4 p.m. and on Thurs., Feb. 20th, 2020, from 2 to 4 p.m. Before color photographs, black-and-white photos were tinted in different ways. Participants will be able to use techniques to add “pops” of color to images of historic people and buildings of Stillwater. We will also be demonstrating the E.P. Co. Magic Lantern from the Museum’s collection pictured and described above. 

Photo Identification The museum is blessed with many photographs from our community’s past; however, there are photographs in the collection that remain unidentified. We need your help to identify these Stillwater people and places. Please stop by during the month of February and lend your knowledge to this project. 

Exhibits Opening & Reception Thurs., Feb. 13th, 2020, 5:30 p.m. “Women’s Suffrage/League of Women Voters 100th Anniversary” and “Preserving Your Family Heirlooms.” League of Women Voters Program Sun., March 1st, 2020, 2:00 p.m. “Women in American Life” is a multicultural women’s history 5-part series written and produced by the National Women’s History Program. On Feb. 29th, 2020, the Stillwater League of Women Voters will present the third story in the series: “1942-1955: War, Work, Housework, & Growing Discontent” followed a lively discussion.