First Showing of Commercial Motion Pictures

Today in 1894, the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures in history was given in New York City, using ten Kinetoscopes.  Though not a movie projector—it was designed for films to be viewed individually through the window of a cabinet housing its components—Edison’s Kinetoscope introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video: it creates the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter.

Scott Kirsner brings to life the scene on this day in 1894 in Inventing the Movies: “The Holland brothers had rented a former shoe store at 1155 Broadway… and turned it into the world’s first Kinetoscope parlor. … Greeting patrons at the entrance was a bust of Thomas Edison… painted to look like it had been cast out of bronze, and perched atop a Greek column to give the place an air of class…. The novelty of life and motion stored inside a box and triggered on command–the startling realism of those flickery, black-and-white scenes–was what drew in customers, not the films being exhibited. … By the close of the first day of business, nearly five hundred people have watched Edison’s movies, and the Holland brothers had raked in $120.”

A year earlier, Edison wrote about the invention: “I’m doubtful there is any commercial feature in it, and fear it will not earn their cost. These… devices are of too sentimental value to get the public to invest in it.”

He was wrong. The Kinetoscopes were an immediate hit. Edison sold nearly a thousand of them at $200 each to a syndicate; his $24,000 investment in experimentation had by February 1895 returned $177,847 on machines and films. And then, says Harold Evans in They Made America, “[Edison] took the first step on a long, long road to synchronized talking pictures, when he installed a phonograph in a peep-show machine.”

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