An example of The "MUTOSCOPE", manufactured by the Mutoscope Reel Company of New York in 1921, for the Palace Pier, Brighton, loaded with the "Mechanical Maniacs" sequence.
This machine is on loan from the National Museum of Slot Machines, Brighton.
A short history of early motion-film viewers
- ~180AD - Ting Huan creates a variation on the Chinese lamp, in which convection rotates the lamp, revealing a series of painted images on mica slides. The principle is experimented with over the next two thousand years but is treated as a toy or novelty, and is not seriously developed much further than Ting Huan's idea, due to the lack of commercial applications.
The idea starts to be looked at again more seriously in the Nineteenth Century, as the availability of new mechanisms and materials suggests that the idea might be ready for some technological redevelopment.
- 1833 - William George Horner presents the "Daedalum", a cylindical device.
- Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau's Phenakistoscope is a disc mounted on a spindle that is held up to a mirror and rotated - the viewer looks through the rotating slits and sees the images on the reverse of the disc.
- Simon von Stampfer's, Stroboscopic Disc uses the same principle, but uses two discs on a single spindle, one with the slits, and another with the images. It's a little awkward to use, but doesn't require a mirror.
- William F. Lincoln presents the Zoetrope, another version of the basic Daedelum design. A selling-point of the Zoetrope is that it can be put on a table and viewed by several people at the same time, from different directions, making it useful as a party novelty.
- 1877 - Charles-Émile Reynaud's Praxinoscope improves on the zoetrope - the user looks into the open top of the cylinder, at a series of mirrors arranged around the central axis, which show reflections of the spinning images. The praxinoscope is more comfortable to view, as it eliminates the need to squint through narrow slits.
- 1879 - the Zoopraxiscope is built by Eadweard Muybridge. It is a glass disc with a sequence of images painted around the rim, which are illuminated in series as the disc turns, to project a moving image.
- 1888 - Muybridge shows the device to Thomas Edison, and proposes that the device could be combined with Edison's phonograph to produce a hybrid device to play both sounds and pictures. Edison instead decides to develop his own moving-picture machine.
- 1889-1892 - Inspired by other inventors' progress, Edison decides to produce a moving-image device and employee William Kennedy Dickson develops the coin-operated Kinetoscope for Edison, the final form of which consists of a long strip of celluloid film threaded back and forth between a series of tensioned sprocketed rollers, with a small viewing peephole in the top. The Kinetoscope goes through several incarnations and configurations as Edison sees different experimental machines built by others, finally settling on the use of celluloid strip after George Eastman (of "Eastman Kodak" fame) gives Edison a roll of the new material to experiment with.
The Kinetoscope runs film smoothly through the viewer, with shutters providing a momentary glimpse of each illuminated image when it is properly aligned.
- 1894 - the Mutoscope is patented by Herman Casler. The Mutoscope works according to the "flickbook "principle, with a series of cards fitted to a circular drum that resembles a more modern Rolodex machine. the cards ar eprinted with photographic images, and as the drum rotates each card is exposed and subjected to increasing tension until it the retaining mechanism fails, and the card flicks down rapidly to reveal the next card in the series. The intermittent motion means that each image is visible for most of its allotted timeslot, which allows the mutoscope to use lower light levels, and front-illuminated card rather than back-illuminated transparent film or glass.
- Also in ~1894, the Phantoscope, Pleograph and Cinématographe projecting devices appear (Edison having apparently initially failed to see group viewing as a feasable commercial idea).
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
The American Mutoscope Company was set up in 1895, to sell and lease Mutoscopes and to produce material for them. The company then also created a film projector with the help of the same William Kennedy Dickson who had developed Edison's Kinetoscope (and who'd now left Edison's employ).
The company produced the Biograph projector in 1896, became "The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company", and started producing black-and-white silent films. Unable to use 35mm film stock (due to Edison's patents), the Biograph machines opted to use a larger and higher-quality format, and since the mutoscopes used approximately 70mm images (68mm), "Biograph" films for projection were produced in the same size.
The idea of movie theatres was now becoming a commercial possibility - the technical challenges were being overcome, and the main hurdle was now to be able to produce content that was interesting enough to be able to persuade a roomful of people to pay money to see it.
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company became The Biograph Company (or just Biograph for short), and became one of America's largest film studios. Biograph became a member of Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company filmmaking cartel - Edison had wanted to make the licensed use of his equipment a compulsory condition for being able to operate in the industry, but Biograph counter-sued with a film patent of their own, and were allowed to join the "club". Cartel members were discouraged from producing full-length feature films, and when the MPPC was eventually declared illegal and shut down, Biograph found that they had trouble competing in the new open market, and the company's assets were sold in 1928.
Edison's ability to dominate markets and use a variety of means (legal and otherwise) was legendary - for instance, as a member of the "Edison Trust", Eastman Kodak refused to sell film stock to non-cartel members, and the cartel's distribution subsidiary, the General Film Company, was known for using strongarm tactics to shut down independent filmmakers and "confiscate" unauthorised equipment and stock. As a result, the surviving independent filmmakers wanted to operate as far as possible from the East Coast (where Edison's New Jersey R&D centre was based), and and started scouting out for possible locations in California that might serve as a base of operations.
When D.W. Griffith was looking for locations to direct a film for Biograph, he ventured out of town and found himself in a small village called "Hollywood". Griffith liked the area, and started telling his friends that it seemed like a nice place to make films...