This blog post was written by Dorinda Hartmann, viewing technician in the Moving Image Research Center.
On November 21, 1894, 125 years ago today, inventor Herman Casler submitted a patent for the Mutoscope, an early motion picture device. The Mutoscope was a single-person ‘peep show’ type of machine, coin-operated, and the floor model had a distinctive rounded housing at the top.
The round bit is where the magic happens: inside is a circular drum around which are mounted hundreds of (or even over a thousand!) sequential photographs, rather like a giant version of an old-fashioned Rolodex. As the user turns a crank, the drum revolves, and the photos are quickly flipped through a lit area behind an eyepiece shaded with a hood. The effect is like a large flipbook, with the figures in the photos appearing to move.
Shortly before the Mutoscope was developed, Thomas Edison’s company had already invented its own peep-show-style moving image device, the Kinetoscope. Inside the Kinetoscope, a continuous loop of transparent film ran on rollers, powered by an electric motor, with a light and a revolving shutter to create the illusion of motion for the viewer looking through the eyepiece—a design containing the basic fundamentals for the upcoming big breakthrough into projected motion pictures, when audiences could all view moving images together in a theater.
Herman Casler, a former Edison employee, was seeking a less-expensive and less-complex alternative to the Kinetoscope. When moving image expert William K. L. Dickson left Edison’s company in 1895 and worked with Casler on the Mutoscope, the new device had to be different enough to avoid any legal infringement on the Kinetoscope. The resulting “flipbook” design was not directly related to eventual film projection technology, as the Kinetoscope was, but the Mutoscope was simpler and more robust, leading to its long afterlife in peep-show outlets such as arcades and fairs for much of the twentieth century.
The Library of Congress collections contain some films that were originally sent to us as Mutoscope reels, submitted for Copyright registration. The individual photographs were later printed to motion picture film so they can now be viewed in the Moving Image Research Center without requiring a Mutoscope machine (although don’t we wish we had one!).
For instance, in 1898, Dickson made official arrangements with the Vatican to film Pope Leo XIII, the first appearance of a Pope in any moving image, years before the Pope allowed any sound recordings of his voice. These short filmed scenes of the Pope and his attendants and guards were also made into sets of Mutoscope cards, with titles such as Pope Leo XIII in Carriage, Pope Leo Attended by Guards, and Pope Leo XIII Giving Blessing From Chair. The eight Mutoscope reels we received in 1898 are the earliest surviving copies of these films.
The photo on the left shows the drum from inside a Mutoscope, containing the 742 original photos for the set titled Pope Leo XIII in Carriage.
These days we have this title and others on motion picture film, which can be watched in the Moving Image Research Center. It doesn’t cost a nickel and you don’t have to crank it yourself, but if you come to see it, you’ll be sharing an experience with the people of the 1890s, watching still images come to life.
Have questions about the film and television collections of the Library of Congress? Ask a Moving Image reference librarian here.