Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 17:24 EDT


The Kinetoscope is an early motion picture device although not a movie projector. It is designed to be viewed by an individual through a window of a cabinet housing its components. It works 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. Thomas Edison was the first to describe it in conceptual terms; however, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson was the first to develop it.

Ten Kinetoscopes were used during the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures in New York City in 1894. Edison did not seek a patent internationally and therefore the Kinetoscope had a major impact in Europe. Eventually film projection superseded the kinetoscope’s individual exhibition model. Eadweard Muybridge’s lecture on his zoopraxiscope may have been attended by Edison and further spurred him into working on a motion picture system. In 1888 Edison made his plans clear that he was going to create some sort of audiovisual system. In 1889 he gave the system the name Kinetoscope. Edison assigned the design to Dickson although he eventually took the credit for the invention.

After Edison went to Europe he returned to file another caveat describing a kinetoscope based on not just on flexible filmstrip, but one in which the film was perforated to allow for its engagement by sprockets which made its mechanical conveyance more smooth and reliable. Disc-based projection devices are often referred to as important conceptual sources for the development of the Kinetoscope. This system uses intermittent light source to momentarily “freeze” the projection of each image in order to facilitate the viewer’s retention of many minutely different stages of a photographed activity. This creates am illusion of constant motion.

Scholars argue that Edison and Dickson misrepresented the date on which they started the project in order to protect the intellectual status. The work on the Kinetoscope throughout the 1890s was sporadic as Dickson was concentrating on some of Edison’s other ideas. In 1891 the first demonstration of the Kinetoscope was given at laboratory. The device was just a small pine box with a one inch hole that the viewers looked through. The viewers saw a man that bowed and smiled and waved its hands. The movie is called Dickson Greeting.

Edison’s team had completed the design of the Kinetoscope by 1892. Within a few years this design was adopted globally as the standard for the motion picture film. In 1893 a patent was issued for the system that governed the intermittent movement of film in the Kinetograph. This system would soon be superseded by competing systems. After the filming of Fred Ott’s Sneeze, the Kinetoscope was ready for its epochal moment.

In 1894 a Kinetoscope parlor was opened in New York City. It had ten machines set up in rows each showing a different movie. The machines came from the new Kinetoscope Company which had contracted with Edison for their production. Charles Musser declared a “profound transformation of American life and performance culture” had begun. The 25 cent price to see the Kinetoscopes was not exactly cheap since you could get entrance to Coney Island with three rides, and a performing sea lion show. Regardless of the price the Kinetoscope was a hit. Soon Kinetoscope parlors were all over the country. By and large these parlors were profitable.

James J. Corbett had the first movie star contract in which it stipulated he could not be recorded by any other Kinetoscope company. Three months after the motion picture debut the first case of censorship came when Spanish dancer Carmencita was described as “communicating an intense sexuality across the footlights”.

The Kinetoscope was also gaining exposure in Paris where it inspired the Lumiere brothers who later would develop the first commercially successful movie projection system. In 1894 a parlor opened in London. Edison saw little value in the Kinetoscope and failed to pay the $150 for an overseas patent. This theory is not commonly accepted given that Edison invested $24,000 on the system.

George Georgiades and George Tragides took advantage of Edison not claiming a patent and hired Robert W. Paul to make copies of the Kinetoscope. Paul eventually contributed a lot of important innovations in both camera and exhibition technology.