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The late 19th century saw an explosion of apparatus attempting to recreate the movement of real life, an explosion that contemporaries were conscious of. A conscientious New York Times reporter provides a list of 50 --graphs and --scopes, including "Vitascope [alternative name for the kinetoscope] and biograph are most familiar here, with cinematograph coming next at a considerable distance...Electroscope exists, and so do ...zinematograph, vitropticon, stinnetiscope, vivrescope, diaramiscope, corminograph, kineoptopscope, craboscope, vitaletiscope, cinematoscope, mutoscope, cinoscope, kinetograph, lobsterscope" ("Topics of the Times"). This 1898 writer asserts, "The arrangements for manipulation of the light, the band, and the lens are numerous, but they vary only in inconsequential details, and for all practical purposes the machines are identical." At least one apparatus on this extensive list contradicts that claim to sameness, and current film historians criticize that difference. "Although the Mutoscope has had a longer life than its competitor, it is the Kinetoscope that is more important in the growth of motion pictures because it used film." (Kardish 21-22)

The mutoscope shares light and lens with its scopular and graphical cousins, but lacks the "band of minute photographs" ("Topics of the Times"). The material realization of this difference, printed paper images, reveals a possible conception of the moving image as a moment in a range from stillness to imperceptible difference rather than a dichotometric choice between the end poles.

Earliest known version of mutoscope, from the Scientific American, April 17, 1897 (Keim 10).



The design of the mutoscope was motivated by both appropriation and avoidance. Herman Casler and the American Mutoscope company aimed to enter the market of the peep-show style, moving-image viewing devices dominated by Edison's Kinetoscope, while simultaneously avoiding mechanical overlap with Edison's patents. "The Mutoscope was intended to compete with the Kinetoscope and the motion-picture camera to give the company independence from Edison’s control of the market...The use of 70mm unperforated film and an associated “Mutoscope” “flip-card” device was intended to be as different as possible in principle from Edison’s system of 35mm film with a double row of sprocket holes" (Brown and Anthony 9). These precautions did not prevent litigation. Edison v. American Mutoscope (1902) resulted in the limiting of Edison's previous patent claims, but an ongoing battle until 1914. Edison brought suit against Biograph, as he did against all competitors. But... [the] partners had adequate legal assistance in demonstrating the important differences between the mutoscope and the kinetoscope. Biograph won its case and emerged as Edison’s only significant competitor in the penny arcade era, positioning the company for the age of projection.” (Keim 14-15). Thus, the main features of the apparatus are best understood as a contrast with its competitor and predecessor.

Moving pictures vs Moving Images

The Mutoscope
1. Internal view, without the image cylinder 2. Internal view with the cylinder in place 3. Details of the mechanism seen from the front 4. Details of the mechanism seen from behind
The Biograph Mutoscope (Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive) (Kardish 21) .

Patent number 683,910, Herman Casler's original mutoscope patent, reveals how this machine built on aspects of existing devices. "The picture-bearing cards F, which are substantially the same form as those now used in mutoscopes, except that they are somewhat wider to allow them to receive a pair of stereoscopic pictures instead of a single picture, are rigidly attached to the said spool D in a spiral row" ("Patent 683,910"). Later models dropped this conflation of the "real with the optical," although all depended on the unmediated field of view between the spectator and the cards (Crary 124). A hand crank rotated the center spool, thus causing the rigid pictures to cycle before a viewer. On the other hand, "the Kinetoscope viewer was an upright wooden box contaning [sic] a bank of spools over which 15m (nearly 50 feet) of film ran in an endless loop. The continuously moving film passed over an electric lamp and under a magnifying glass set in the top of the box" (Lloyd and Robinson 12). Although the original mutoscope did not have a source of illumination, later designs included this feature.

The kinetoscope, projecting images from a moving film, and the mutoscope, illuminating a printed card, thus represent opposite ends of the spectrum of opacity and transparency. In the taxotomy of moving images, the kinetoscope takes after the projected magic lantern, while the mutoscope resembles the zoetrope, although both “peep show devices that were cinema’s first film apparatuses seemed to derive from such single-viewer devices as the stereoscope, the three-dimensional viewer designed for parlor use in the Victorian era" (Gunning 341). The viewable surface of the kinetoscope requires two parts—illuminated film and a reception screen—while the individual viewable card of the mutoscope is self-contained. Because the mutoscope was not projected, it did not cause the distortion that was a common complaint of the kinetoscope.

The similarity between the mutoscope’s individual consecutive printed photographs and the kinetoscope’s joined film helps explain the reasoning behind Edison vs Lubin. “Because individual frames on a film…were increasingly similar as they were positioned on the film closer and closer together, the film had to be considered a single photograph, not a new entity. Hence it was eligible for protection in accordance with the Sarony precedent and the Act of 1865” (Gitelman 128). Physically discreet cards ordered and bound to a spool create cohesive movement when viewed.

Hand Crank vs Electric Motor

Edison had the kinetoscope motorized from the beginning of its commercial use. “The machine as set in motion by inserting a coin to activate the electric motor and gave a ‘show’ lasting about twenty seconds” (Lloyd and Robinson 12). The Mutoscope, on the other hand, was only partly automized and demanded human involvement. “Upon revolving the shaft E by means of the crank e’ the worm e engages with the teeth of the gear-wheel c and causes the same, together with the arbor and its card-bearing spool, to revolve” ("Patent 683,910"). The two viewers offered two different experiences of motion through time. “From 1895 to 1909, penny arcades around the country typically featured both machines among their attractions. Some viewers preferred the greater control over the speed of the image offered by the mutoscope’s hand crank. Others preferred the steady pace offered by the kinetoscope” (Keim 10) A mutoscope viewer could pause and consider a particular image, could transition between movement and stillness, breaking the illusion of fluid motion--although the lamp in later models would turn off if paused too long.

This cranking motion hints at the erotic content of many later mutoscope films. Linda Williams “indicates in a recent essay discussing this [A Country Stud Horse] stag film, the apparatus of the Mutoscope plays an important role here, not only as a faute de mieux, but as a form of technological foreplay. As such it foregrounds the free-flowing displacement that circulates between machine and body, transforming both through sexual energy. The Mutoscope in this instance cranks out sex as well as moving imagery” (Gunning 354). The lever is both extended arm and extended phallus (Flusser 51).


A later version of the mutoscope was encased in steel so that it could not be carried away, c. 1900 (Keim 11).

In traditional mutoscopes, the operating apparatus is a closed box, with the "box" segment sized to allow full rotation of the internal cards and arbitrarily shaped either cylindrically or polygonically. The images turn in coordinated rhythm with the hand crank, but the mechanism is not visible. This is not a permanent condition. Artist Douglas Crockwell created a number of mutoscopes in clear plastic cubes for a 1967 Museum of Modern Art exhibit that revealed the movement of the cards while in use.

Unlike, more modern arcade machines--video games, pinball machines--mutoscopes have changeable programming, or content. To change the spool of images, a side door, mentioned in the original patent, can be opened to reveal the inner workings. This compartment also reveals the physical limits on the size and density of the cards that can be contained. Although sturdy, these paper cards can show the wear and tear of friction against the spool, against the outer shell, and against each other if not well fitted, resulting in rubbed ink and blurred images. Both to protect the cards from external damage such as water and to prevent theft, the mutoscopes of the penny arcades and parlors had heavy steel outer shells, unlike the table-top home version, the kinora. The decorative details did not contribute to the mechanical operations, but may have alluded to a sense of middle-class Victorian respectability, counter-balancing the disreputable peep-show machine.

Unlike many of its contemporaries, the mutoscope is solely a viewing machine. Separate camera and print technologies produce the interchangeable content.


Arcades: Viewing Alone, Together

Both kinetoscopes and mutoscopes were common devices in the penny arcades of the late 19th century. “In the early days of moving pictures, it was by no means certain that public audiences sitting in commercial theatre halls would be the main future of the medium. The Kinetoscope and Mutoscope peepshows, set up in rows in amusement arcades, tempted the more solitary spectator" (Herbert). The first Mutoscope parlor opened in New York City in 1898 with 17 machines, followed by a parlor in Boston with 20 (Musser 263). Eventually, as many as 300 mutoscopes were gathered together in a single leisure location (Brown and Anthony 81). These machines could handle only one client at a time, and this limited spectatorship was a contributing factor to the industrial drive toward projection, as that technology could entertain multiple audience member simultaneously, resulting in greatly increased profits from each showing. “Early cinema audiences were often an unruly bunch, drawn to nickelodeons and Kinetoscope parlors through the lure of sensation alone. “(Dixon & Foster 11) This private characteristic drove the popularity of the erotic genre of mutoscope films.

Scopic Pleasure: Erotic Viewing

Although he disavows the risqué as a cause of decreased popularity, Jonathan Crary evokes the potential eroticism of the stereoscope, the predecessor of the mutoscope identified by Tom Gunning. “The stereoscope as a means of representation was inherently obscene, in the most literal sense. It shattered the scenic relationship between viewer and object that was intrinsic to the fundamentally theatrical setup of the camera obscura…Some have speculated that the very close association of the stereoscope with pornography was in part responsible for its social demise as a mode of visual consumption….the simulation of tangible three-dimensionality hovers uneasily at the limits of accepted verisimilitude” (Crary 127). The voyeuristic quality of all mutoscope viewing was epitomized by the erotic film “What the Butler Saw” in which the spectator watches a woman through a keyhole as she undresses, mimetically taking the position of the peeping butler. Although, the apparatus was not dedicated to a particular narrative because the film reel was changeable, it gained a skeumorphic appellation and “has now entered English folklore as the ‘What the Butler Saw’ Machine” independent of the specific card reel in the apparatus (Brown and Anthony 112).


  • Adair, Gilbert. Flickers : An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995. Print.
  • Brown, Richard. A Victorian Film Enterprise : The History of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1897-1915.Print.
  • Casler, Herman. Mutoscope. Patent 683,910. 8 Oct 1901. Web. 27 Mar 2010. PDF.
  • Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Oberver: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1990. Print.
  • Dixon, Wheeler W. and Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. A Short History of Film. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008. Print.
  • Flusser, Vilém. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 1999. Print.
  • Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford, California: Standford University Press, 1999. Print.
  • Gunning, Tom. "Machines That Give Birth to Images: Douglas Crockwell." Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1995. Print.
  • Herbert, Stephen. A History of Early Film Volume 1. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.
  • The Illustrated History of the Cinema. Ed. Lloyd, Ann and Robinson, David. Orbis Book Publishing Corporation Ltd. and Macmillan Publishing Company., 1986. Print.
  • Kardish, Laurence. Real Plastic Magic: A History of Films and Filmmaking in America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972. Print.
  • Keim, Norman O. with Marc, David. Our Movie Houses: A History of Film & Cinematic Innovation in Central New York. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008. Print.
  • Musser, Charles. The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. New York: Macmillian Publishing Company, 1990. Web.
  • "TOPICS OF THE TIMES." New York Times (1857-1922) 28 Jan. 1898,ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2006), ProQuest. Web. 27 Mar. 2010.
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