Edison Home Kinetoscope

Robert Gutteridge is an avid collector of optical toys and old movie equipment. He recently published his book Magic Moments on the early years of movies in Toronto.

In the early days, home movies were not very successful. The movies used nitrate film which decomposed and became a fire hazard. Edison patented and placed his famous name on many devices actually invented by one of his talented employees. This was the case with the Home Kinetoscope. It was created for Edison by a Mr. Gall.

Edison wanted to offer a projector for the home - a means to show his movies rather than a means for people to make their own movies. The Kinetoscope came in a metal box and could be set up ready for use in three minutes according to the instructions - a feat that usually took much longer.

Edison copied his whole professional catalogue of 250 movies to non inflammable acetate film for sale to the home enthusiast. He created much smaller frames in three columns on a film 22mm wide and up to 80 feet long. A lever on the Kinetoscope allowed the operator to switch bands as the movie progressed. The centre ban was recorded in reverse so there was no delay to rewind the film before switching. A customer could return a film for a credit on his next film.

The earliest versions simply dropped the film through a slot in the support box and then pulled it back up to project the middle band. There was a risk of the film tangling in the box and being damaged, so an improved version added a proper take up spool and drive.

A variety of light sources and lens combinations were offered to accommodate various size screen and projection distances. The example shown has the mini arc lamp. The Kinetoscope can also show slides - 10 images were offered on a glass strip in two rows of five. An adapter was fitted between the light source and the lens and the light source was shifted to a position in front of a second lens designed for use with the slide adapter.

The Home Kinetoscope was a failure. Its most memorable value was the preservation of Edison's early movies in the tiny format for this projector long after the 35 mm originals on the unstable nitrate based films disappeared. The projector was sold from 1912 - 1915/6. Of the 2,700 units produced, only 500 were sold in North America. 1,200 were sent to Europe, dominated by Pathe. None were sold and all 1,200 where shipped back to Edison. The failure was due to a number of things:

The machines were complex and difficult to use
Dealers were untrained and could not demonstrate the machine
Could only show Edison movies - could not take/show home movies
Pathe had a better product in Europe

The example shown is serial number 860, equipped with the mini arc lamp, safety shutter, and take up spool. Robert acquired some time ago it from Allan Kattelle who recently published the book Home Movies, a history of this favourite pastime.

You can find more information at the Online Exhibit page from the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, and the Home Kinetoscope page at Adventures in Cybersound.

ABOUT THE IMAGES. Click on any image and in a few seconds you will see an enlarged view in a separate window. The images were taken with a Nikon 990 digital camera and modified as required in Photoshop. All images are © 2001 by the Photographic Historical Society of Canada and may be used if the source is mentioned.


Bob Carter












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