On This Day 1891 – 1st Public Display Of Thomas Edison’s Prototype Kinetoscope

Photo: Publicity or news photograph of San Francisco Kinetoscope parlor, ca. 1894–95, Source: National Park Service

A prototype for the Kinetoscope was shown to a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs on May 20, 1891. The device was both a camera and a peep-hole viewer, and the film used was 18mm wide.

The Kinetoscope is an early motion picture exhibition device that allows one person to view a film at a time through a peephole viewer window. It was invented by Thomas A. Edison and William Dickson of the United States in1891. “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”, according to Britannica. The Kinetoscope was not a movie projector, but it pioneered the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection prior to the introduction of video: it generated the illusion of movement by sliding a strip of perforated film with consecutive images over a light source using a high-speed shutter. The result was a lifelike representation of persons and objects in motion.

Filmstrip of Butterfly Dance (ca. 1895), an early Kinetoscope film produced by Thomas Edison, featuring Annabelle Whitford. 1 3/8–inch (35 mm) filmstrip, in the format that would become standard for motion picture photography around the world. Photo: Getty Images

The Kinetoscope was first conceptualized in 1888 by Thomas Edison, a US inventor, and was substantially developed between 1889 and 1892 by his employee, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson.

On the 20th of May 1891, members of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs were invited to the Edison laboratory for the first semi-public demonstration of a Kinetoscope prototype. Two years later, the completed version was officially unveiled in Brooklyn, and on April 14, 1894. Using ten Kinetoscopes, the first commercial motion picture exhibition was held in New York City.

The Kinetoscope, which was essential in the formation of American movie culture, also had a significant impact in Europe; its significance was amplified by Edison’s choice not to pursue international patents on the device, allowing for multiple imitations and developments to the technology.

Illustration of the rear interior of a Kinetoscope machine, with peephole viewer at top of cabinet
Photo: Albert Tissandier – Originally published as an illustration to “Le Kinétoscope d’Edison” by Gaston Tissandier in La Nature: Revue des sciences et de leurs applications aux arts et à l’industrie, October 1894.
A man looking into a Kinetoscope. The kinetoscope, showing interior and size (Photo: Getty)