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What is a Kinetoscope?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A kinetoscope is a device which allows people to view motion pictures. The kinetoscope was one of the first such devices widely developed and distributed, and while the design ultimately proved to be a failure, it clearly inspired other inventors, so it could be considered a landmark invention in the history of film. This device was invented in the laboratory of Thomas Edison, and as was conventional for inventions in his lab, the patent was taken out by Edison himself, making it challenging to determine precisely who worked on the project.

The design for the kinetoscope consisted of a closed cabinet in which the film was spooled. To operate the device, the user opened the top and peered through a small hole, and as the film was moved across a series of rollers, a backlight would illuminate it, creating the illusion of a moving picture, as long as the film was rotated at the proper speed. When the kinetoscope was first shown to the public in 1894, it proved to be a big hit.

Kinetoscopes began to spring up all over the United States, commonly being found in kinetoscope parlors, which featured a row of the devices which users could operate by inserting coins into slots. In addition to short films, the kinetoscope was also used to display footage of things like sports matches, allowing people all over the United States to see events which they had not been able to attend.

A version of the kinetoscope accompanied with sound was also developed, and christened the kinetophone. Linking sound with pictures turned out to be quite a challenge, as it was extremely difficult to synchronize the sound and the picture. For viewers, the kinetophone was also not terribly comfortable or convenient to use, as it required wearing headphones while leaning over the cabinet to view the movie as it was displayed.

Around the same time that the kinetoscope came out, inventors were working on a version of the movie projector, and it became readily apparent that projectors would be the wave of the future. Projectors had a number of advantages over kinetoscopes, not least of which was the ability of a group to enjoy a film together while seated comfortably, and Edison made several attempts at a projecting kinetoscope, later branching out into other forms of movie projectors for the growing motion picture market.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon226410 — On Oct 31, 2011

Although videotape technology did exist during the early years of television, many of the earliest live programs were preserved through the use of a kinetoscope. If you see old episodes of shows like The Honeymooners, they'll often look like someone brought a cheap movie camera to the set and stood next to the TV cameras.

The amount of lighting required for early TV shows tended to wash out the image on the kinetoscope, but sometimes the film version was the only recording of a live show. Shows that were filmed in front of a studio audience, like "I Love Lucy" were able to be shown in reruns without the need for a kinetoscope copy.

By anon55661 — On Dec 08, 2009

it was supposedly invented by thomas edison but in fact it was william dickinson who actually should get the credit of being the father of film.

By anon27743 — On Mar 04, 2009

The kinetoscope was invented by William Dickson.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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