Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope (1893)

The Kinetoscope is an early motion picture exhibition device. The Kinetoscope was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device.

San Francisco Kinetoscope Parlor, 1895

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The Kinetoscope was not a movie projector, but introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video, by creating the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter.

What’s a Kinetoscope?

Kinetoscope, forerunner of the motion-picture film projector, invented by Thomas A. Edison and William Dickson of the United States in 1891. In it, a strip of film was passed rapidly between a lens and an electric light bulb while the viewer peered through a peephole. Behind the peephole was a spinning wheel with a narrow slit that acted as a shutter, permitting a momentary view of each of the 46 frames passing in front of the shutter every second. The result was a lifelike representation of persons and objects in motion. At first, Edison regarded his invention as an insignificant toy.

An open Kinetoscope

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How it was created

Edison’s initial concept for his motion picture device was based on the phonograph’s cylinder. Small photographic images following a sequence were attached to a cylinder, with the idea that an illusion of motion through reflected light would be created as the cylinder rotated. However, tests showed that it was ineffective.

Blueprints of the kinetoscope

Finally, when emulsion-coated celluloid films were developed by John Carbutt, Edison started using them for testing during the kinetoscope’s development. Working under this new direction, Dickson, along with a new assistant, started creating a device with a horizontal-feed system for exposing film strips.

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The final product

On August 24, 1891, Edison filed the patent for the camera (kinetograph) — peep-hole viewer (kinetoscope) set-up, indicating the film width to be 35mm and the possibility of using a cylinder for future upgrades. The final product was completed in 1892, sporting a minor change: the horizontal-feed mechanism was replaced with a vertical one. It was formally introduced to the public on May 9, 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. To watch a clip of moving images, the viewer would peek into a peep-hole with magnifying lenses on top of the cabinet.

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The first videos ever created

A room filled with kinetoscopes

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On April 14, 1894, a public Kinetoscope parlor was opened by the Holland Bros. in New York City at 1155 Broadway, on the corner of 27th Street—the first commercial motion picture house. The venue had ten machines, set up in parallel rows of five, each showing a different movie. For 25 cents a viewer could see all the films in either row; half a dollar gave access to the entire bill.The machines were purchased from the new Kinetoscope Company, which had contracted with Edison for their production. The ten films that comprise the first commercial movie program, all shot at the Black Maria, were descriptively titled: Barber ShopBertoldi (mouth support) (Ena Bertoldi, a British vaudeville contortionist), Bertoldi (table contortion)BlacksmithsRoosters (some manner of cock fight), Highland DanceHorse ShoeingSandow (Eugen Sandow, a German strongman), Trapeze, and Wrestling. As historian Charles Musser describes, a “profound transformation of American life and performance culture” had begun.

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