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Happy 125th Birthday to the Mutoscope!

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This blog post was written by Dorinda Hartmann, viewing technician in the Moving Image Research Center.

Full view of American mutoscope in bronze, 1905.

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.

Mechanical parts of a “Mutoscope” motion picture machine, ca. 1900.

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.

Thomas A. Edison, W.K.L. Dickson, and others at the “perfected” wax-recording phonograph. Dickson is standing on the left. 1892.

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 ChairThe eight Mutoscope reels we received in 1898 are the earliest surviving copies of these films.

Mutoscope drum. Photo courtesy of Dorinda Hartmann.

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.

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for the Mutoscope news!

    Interesting that the American Mutoscope Company cards/reels/rolls/drums were submitted to the Library as copyright deposits. If considered part of the LOC Paper Print Collection of motion pictures, these big cards are distinct from almost every other paper print: the 3,000+ films copyrighted on paper were rolls of paper 35mm wide, made from 35mm film negatives. Mutoscope’s frames were 68mm or 70mm wide (or “two and three-quarter inches” as the company put it) — the width of the first Kodak film for still cameras. [See Paul Spehr’s book “The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson,” 2008.]

    One other American Mutoscope Co. movie predated the 1898 recordings of Pope Leo XIII. It might be the only other 68mm paper print. The short 1897 film of a dancer was never publicly released and was not deposited for copyright until 1907.

    Footnote: The blog post’s photo caption “Thomas A. Edison, W.K.L. Dickson, and others at the “perfected” wax-recording phonograph. Dickson is standing on the left. 1892,” could further note that the mutton-chopped gent seated at far left, in front of Dickson, is none other than Fred Ott, two years before he appeared in Dickson’s EDISON KINETOSCOPIC RECORD OF A SNEEZE, JAN. 7, 1894. Coincidentally, like the Mutoscope rolls, “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” is also a paper print anomaly. It was shot on 35mm film but deposited for copyright as 45 consecutive frames printed as a single composite image as what the LOC catalog calls “gelatin printing-out paper print.” Dickson deposited two copies of this composite image, each on a card measuring 7 inches tall and 5 inches wide.

    • Dr. Streible, thank you for your comments!

      The large size of the Mutoscope cards is definitely very striking compared to the other paper print deposits. And I’m sure their size is the reason why, when they were photographed back onto motion picture film, the outcome was so much better than some other films of paper print deposits made at the time.

      The Pope Leo XIII Mutoscope deposits were put back onto film in 1953 for an AMPAS press screening, and the result really stands out in terms of clarity—some other 16mm films made from paper prints suffer from excessive graininess, lack of contrast, and so forth, partly from having to work with much smaller and less-distinct images. The Pope Leo XIII films are also striking for the care that was taken to get the speed correct, which is always a challenge with early motion pictures.

      And thank you also for pointing out Fred Ott! A very distinctive face in our field…I wonder if he knew just how famous his sneeze would become?
      Dorinda Hartmann

  2. How did Mutoscope get its name?

    • Thanks for your question! They created the name using the Latin word “mutare”, meaning “to change”, and then added “scope” on the end.

      This naming style—taking a Latin or Greek root and then adding a suffix like “scope” or “graph”—was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for naming new moving-picture devices. There’s an article in the periodical “The Phonoscope” from May, 1897, that complains:

      “These are the kinetoscope, vitascope, biograph, verascope, cinematoscope, trioscope, zinograph, projectoscope, mutoscope, phantographoscope, vitagraph, animatoniscope, eidoloscope, cinematograph, and many others too numerous to mention, each and all devised to project on a screen pictures full of life and action. Why the inventors should resurrect the dead languages in giving names to so startlingly modern inventions is surprising.”

      –Dorinda Hartmann

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