Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope -- a forerunner of projected motion pictures -- is demonstrated in Seattle on December 13, 1894.

  • By Eric L. Flom
  • Posted 1/10/2006
  • Essay 7582
On December 13, 1894, the Kinetoscope -- the latest wonder from famed inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) -- makes its Seattle debut in a storefront on the Occidental Block, at the corner of 2nd Avenue and James Street. Although viewed at the time as a mere novelty, today the Kinetoscope is recognized as the machine that first brought motion picture technology to the general public.

Coming Soon to a (Very Small) Screen Near You

Although many inventors (in particular the Lumiere brothers in France) were experimenting with motion photography in the 1880s and 1890s, Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope machine -- which debuted to the public in the spring of 1894 -- was the first built exclusively for presenting this new technology to the masses. However, because the ability to project motion pictures to a large audience would not be perfected until 1895, the Kinetoscope was designed to entertain the masses one person at a time.

Often dubbed a "peep show" entertainment, the Kinetoscope was a large wooden box about four feet tall, with a small brass viewer on top. Inside, a film was set up on a looping system (in contrast to today's familiar spooling method) whereby the film was completely unfurled on a series of vertical rollers throughout the machine. Once a coin was inserted, a motor inside the Kinetoscope moved the strip of film through a revolving shutter and over a light source below the viewing device. The images were a bit jerky, but the viewer was able to see a demonstration of motion in the brief photographic images.

In addition to image quality, Thomas Edison's early Kinetoscope machines had other flaws. With most subjects photographed at 40 frames per second of film, and with a vertical looping capacity of roughly 50 feet, the first Kinetoscopes could only present about 20 seconds of entertainment. Gradually, increased film capacity and slower shooting speeds increased the running time of the average Kinetoscope to a full minute.

Virtually all of these early film subjects were shot at the Edison laboratories in New Jersey in a building dubbed the "Black Maria" -- slang for a police paddy wagon, which it somewhat resembled. Whereas films shot by the Lumieres in France tended to depict scenes from everyday life, those shot at the Edison laboratories tended to concentrate on popular culture -- vaudeville performances, dancers, circuses, or historical reenactments. Larger productions were sometimes undertaken. When sections of Charles Hoyt's play A Milk White Flag were filmed at one point, including one scene featuring 34 actors, it was considered a "spectacle" by Kinetoscope standards.

What Seattleites Saw

So what exactly were Seattle's first Kinetoscope viewers able to see during its local debut? Existing historical records don't reveal this secret. Kinetoscope advertisements ran in the Post-Intelligencer from December 13 to 19, 1894 ("Edison's Latest Wonder! ... The most Mysterious and Marvelous Invention of the Nineteenth Century"), although the paper itself did not comment on the new invention. (No mention whatsoever of the Kinetoscope appeared in corresponding issues of the Seattle Daily Times.) The brief run of ad material suggests that the entertainment was temporary in nature, which may have been a factor in the lack of press coverage, despite the public's interest in new inventions from the Edison laboratories.

Still, the December 1894 engagement of the Kinetoscope is Seattle's earliest known presentation of motion pictures. Although the enterprise seems to have come and gone rather anonymously, Edison's machine was (arguably) the first in a series of developments that would lead to the establishment of a film industry, and eventually Hollywood. As Terry Ramsaye noted in his landmark 1925 book, A Million and One Nights:

"...[M]ark you well this Edison peep show Kinetoscope. Every strand in the thread of motion picture destiny runs through it. It is the inescapable link between the gropings of the past and the attainment of the present. Every motion picture machine, every motion picture enterprise, every motion picture personality, screen star or magnate of the screen theatre can be traced to some connection growing out of the little black box that Edison dubbed the Kinetoscope. This is one of the absolute facts of the history of the motion picture"(Ramsey, pp. 72-73).

Sources: Kinetoscope advertisement, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 13, 1894, p. 5; Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights (New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, [1925] 1986), pp. 72-73; Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 81-89.

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