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The Mutoscope

March 5, 2017

Object: Mutoscope

Origin: Great Britain

Date: ca. 1899

Materials: Metal/photographic print

Dimensions: Height – 47cm

Width – 18.5cm

Depth – 42cm

Location: Level 4 – Prints & Drawings Study Room

The Mutoscope, assumed to be from Latin ‘mutare’ [to change], was invented in 1894 by the American Hermann Casler, co-founder of the KMCD group. This device was used for creating moving picture from a series of still photographs.

This design worked as a viewing device for a single person, using radially-mounted photographs flicked over in rapid sequence to give the illusion of movement.

Casler’s patented design was produced during a surge of technical advances in 1890, which found new ways of presenting moving pictures. Thomas Edison introduced the Kinetoscope in 1894, similar to Casler’s Mutoscope, along with many other competitors’ patented products.

The device works similar to that of the ‘flip book’, viewing sequential still (about 680) photographs in rapid succession being revolved by turning a handle and operated once inserting a coin.

The Mutoscope was housed in parlours, penny arcades, seaside piers and amusement parks, becoming popular in Paris and England shortly after release. The most memorable use of the Mutoscope was the mildly risqué ‘What the Butler Saw’ machines, a peeping tom into a woman undressing.

The device was used as a tool for short term entertainment and gained rapid success, paving the way for moving image technologies.

This device is a humbled design of the evolution in technology in the late 1800’s, a minimal design, produced for the purposes of entertainment, it was a leap in humanity from photography to moving image. Maintaining the art of capturing ‘a moment in time’, this product was modestly purposed.

The Mutoscope is undoubtably a pivotal piece of engineering in changing the dynamics of the photography market, as well as saturating the concept and understanding of a ‘moving image’ into developed, consumer based populations.

The Mutoscope on display at the V&A shows Queen Victoria and other dignitaries, drawing up in a carriage outside the Victoria & Albert Museum, with a female RCA student presenting the Queen with a bouquet of flowers. This Mutoscope help data for and marked the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone in 1899 for the extensive new building work.

The placement of this artefact would denote the humble rebirth of the Victoria & Albert museum as a place of preservation and beauty in the inadequate or pivotal objects throughout the evolution of mankind.

It is evident through this that the Victoria & Albert museum is a confident, well-embodied foundation, having immersed itself in the pride of Great Britain as well as the pride of humanity.

The museum needs no formal justification to it’s selection as it has, in my informed opinion, placed history and future in the same division, as a form of enlightenment, visceral entertainment and a pause in time to appreciate the chaos and tessellating evolution that is Design.

The context behind the artefact is left unexplained to an extent, leaving the explanation to the product itself. This has such rich history that needs not be explained but embraced as if the future were the past; The sheer enjoyment in the beauty is permanent from 1899 to present.

This collection houses a purely humbled and original artefact that cannot be replicated in time.


Victoria & Albert Museum (Level 4 – Prints & Drawings Study Room)

Preziosi, Skinner, TS, DP, 2006. Peep-Machine Pin-Ups: 1940s-1950s Mutoscope Art. 1st ed. New Jersey: Schiffer Publishing, Limited.


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