About the Mutoscope

The Mutoscope was a popular form of entertainment in the late Victorian era. The British Mutoscope and Biograph Company were active at the end of the 19th century, producing the first examples of commercial moving film.

Each little story would last about one minute. The resulting film would then be printed, not as the familiar film strip used pre digital technology, but as contact prints from 68 mm film on a run of 800 cards, each printed with one still, in a clear, high definition image. The cards would then be mounted on a reel and installed in a coin-in-the-slot Mutoscope.

A small payment would unlock the mechanism, then the viewer would peer into the lens, turn the crank and watch about a minute of pictures set up as a kind of mechanical flick book. The cards would move at just the right speed for ‘persistence of vision’ to fool the eye into thinking it was watching moving pictures.

The Mutoscope is one of the ancestors of today’s cinema, and survived into the 1960s as the seaside attraction known as the ‘what the butler saw’ machine.

As time went on, the Mutoscope fell out of fashion and became gradually obsolete, some even being thrown into the sea from the piers when they were not longer profitable. Those sets of cards that were saved often found their way into cardboard boxes and could no longer be viewed as the makers intended.

It’s possible that there are other sets of Mutoscope cards lying unregarded in boxes, cupboards and attics at home, or in museums and collections which no longer have the equipment to view them. Perhaps other Mutoscope films featuring Dan Leno and other historically important figures are still out there, just waiting to be discovered …