The Edison Kinetoscope is one of cinema’s earliest inventions.

Thomas Edison is undoubtedly one of America’s best-known entrepreneurs and inventors, with important innovations such as the incandescent light bulb and the phonograph being released to much fanfare in his time. However, you may not know that one of his less famous inventions, the Kinetoscope, is considered instrumental in the birth of American cinema. 

Edison Kinetoscope
Edison Kinetoscope located at the Cole County Historical Society Museum.

Its creation was the work of William Dickson, an employee of Edison’s, who had been in charge of developing the inventor’s idea for a new film-viewing device. The machine that Dickson engineered was named the Kinetoscope from the Greek words kineto, meaning movement, and scopos, meaning to watch. 

The Kinetoscope was a large box that housed a system that quickly moved a strip of film over a light source. Users watched the film whiz by from a hole in the top of the box, and by using sequential images, like those in a flip book, the Kinetoscope gave the impression of movement. 

Edison was slow to develop a projection system at this time, since the Kinetoscopes, designed for single-users, were very profitable. However, films projected for large audiences could generate more profits because fewer machines were needed in proportion to the number of viewers. 

One method of projecting motion pictures to a large audience was patented in 1897 by Edison. The projector was developed in the Edison lab by William Dickson between 1889 and 1892.

The Cole County Historical Society Museum’s Edison Kinetoscope is an example of one of these silent “movie projectors” used circa 1900. It is mounted on a metal stand; there is also a lamp house, a lamp rectifier (which converts AC electricity to DC currents), two square film magazines, and one 1,000 foot take-up reel. 

The Kinetoscope was donated to CCHS on July 31, 1981, by Alfred, Robert, and Evelyn Yeoham. The donors, on the CCHS contract, state that their father, James A. Yeoham, was the projectionist and owned the theater where the Edison Kinetoscope was used. The projector was used in a park where the Capital City Water Company is currently located.

The theater owned by Yeoham was probably an outdoor theater called an air dome. In the 1910s, movie theaters began to pick up in popularity, but because theaters didn’t have air conditioning, summer days made them almost unbearably hot. The early air dome theaters were usually large circus tents that were well ventilated and cool, providing relief from the heat.

Although viewed at the time as a mere novelty, today the Edison Kinetoscope is recognized as the machine that first brought motion picture technology to the general public. The Edison Kinetoscope is only one of the many artifacts on display for public viewing at the Cole County Historical Society and Museum located at 109 Madison St. in Jefferson City. 

Walk-in tours for groups of 10 or fewer are available Tuesday through Saturday from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., or call 573-635-1850 Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for additional times or for larger groups. The library is also open for research on Mondays and Tuesdays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. or by prior arrangement.