Randy Hoyt

Motion Pictures At The 1893 World’s Fair

I wrote this post for an update for backers on my World’s Fair 1893 Kickstarter campaign:

While the fair created many business opportunities, those opportunities did not always end up being successful for everyone involved. We can see that looking at how two early motion picture devices intersected with the history of the fair.

Zoopraxigraphical Hall — Kinetoscop

Zoopraxigraphical Hall — Kinetoscope


Eadweard Muybridge was an eccentric British scientist and a pioneer in photography. He was famous in his day for his large collection of photographs of Yosemite Valley in California, and he is still known today for his work in animal locomotion. He invented the zoopraxiscope, a device for projecting motion pictures, that he used during his lectures. While he was preparing for a trip to Asia, the fair’s Fine Arts Commission invited him give his lectures on the Midway.

Muybridge Lectured on Animal Motion on the Midway

Muybridge Lectured on Animal Motion on the Midway

He spent $6,000 for the building, which he named Zoopraxigraphical Hall. He charged admission and sold his books and other merchandise. Film historians consider this the first commercial movie theater, the first place where audiences paid admission to see motion pictures. Unfortunately, his scientific lectures could not compete with all the other fun and entertaining attractions on the Midway. He made only a tiny profit ($213.43) for the entire fair.

You can watch some of his short films online in this article from the Telegraph: The world’s first films.


Thomas Edison saw the zoopraxiscope and discussed it with Muybridge in 1888. Edison did not believe projected motion pictures could be commercially viable but was apparently inspired to start work on an individual viewing device that he called a kinetoscope. Edison assigned his employee William Dickinson to work on it. (They worked with George Eastman, founder of Kodak, to develop the 35mm filmstrip for use with the kinetoscope.) They displayed a working prototype in 1891.

Thomas Edison - Kinetoscope

Thomas Edison – Kinetoscope

Edison had big plans for the kinetoscope at the World’s Fair in 1893. He planned to produce a number of them and have them prominently on display. Production delays and a nervous breakdown by Dickinson delayed that debut: they were not ready for May 1, 1893. Instead, Edison debuted the first kinetoscope in Brooklyn on May 9. Historians disagree on whether or not the kinetoscope appeared at the fair at all (reports in Scientific American seem to indicate that one kinetoscope was part of Edison’s phonograph exhibit), but it definitely wasn’t the large attraction Edison hoped to have ready.

Kinetoscope Parlor in Boston

Kinetoscope Parlor in Boston

The kinetoscope finally had a wide release in 1894. Kinetoscope parlors operated in New York, San Francisco, Paris, London, and other cities. However, its popularity soon waned as more and more people worked on projecting motion pictures for wider audiences. By 1896, Edison had focused his attention on projected motion pictures. He eventually re-purposed the name “kinetoscope” and applied it to his projection technology.

You can see clips from some of the early kinetoscope films in this PBS short documentary: The Kinetoscope (American Experience)

Mar 15