Just a few years after cinema made its public debut in 1893, the marketing of home projectors began. Though by 1912 the market was flooded with them, the appeal had been limited. That was about to change. Soon two of the biggest companies in the movie business—one French, one American—went head-to-head, marketing their own home projectors as well as offering films for rent by mail, making them available through pioneering delivery systems. Yet only one of these companies would succeed.
Thomas Edison is considered the father of motion pictures. He invented the original movie camera, the kinetograph, which was used to film movies shot at his movie studio, the Black Maria, the foremost of its kind. His lab developed the earliest films in motion picture history, and those movies were exhibited on a peep hole-like device, the kinetoscope—yet another Edison creation. On November 30th, 1897, Edison’s Projecting Kinetoscope was used to show movies on a screen in a commercial setting for the first time. In December 1903, the Edison Manufacturing Company released The Great Train Robbery, which would go on to be the initial motion picture blockbuster. The film industry would prove to be successful, yet rocky, for Edison over the next few years, but in 1912, the year his company launched the Home Projecting Kinetoscope, optimism was in the air.
Charles Pathé, previously a phonograph importer, established the French company Pathé Frères in 1896. In 1902, the company introduced an improved movie camera, and soon it would become the leading model used in filming movies across Europe and America. The same year, they began shooting their own productions—completing them at a very fast clip—and distributing them, as well. They would soon dominate the European industry, so much so that Pathé Frères had few serious rivals. The Pathé K-O-K home projector was launched in 1912 in Europe, and the following year they introduced the device in the United States under a different name: the Pathescope. It was in this environment that home projectors finally became a product that the public could get behind.
The Pathescope and the Home Projecting Kinetoscope (also known as the “Home P.K.”) were similar products in many ways, yet had distinct differences. Both Edison and Pathé produced their own unique film size, which meant the films they rented out could be played only on their respective projectors. The companies also introduced a non-flammable film stock—a positive development in the minds of the general public—thus playing a major role in the appeal of the projectors to homeowners. The cost of the machines differed significantly, with Edison’s Home P.K. selling in the $75-$100 range (roughly $1,770-$2,360 in 2013 dollars), while the budget-priced Pathescope would set one back set one back $150 (about $3,540 today). Pathe's premium offering was priced at $250 (a whopping $5,900 in today’s dollars), making it far and away the priciest home projector available.
Kinetoscope Film "Professor and the New Hat," Thomas A. Edison Co., 1913, object ID 63.85.3.
The fact that the companies offered movies for rent was also of considerable appeal to consumers, as was the system of home delivery by mail. In order to accomplish this, both Edison and Pathé established “exchange” hubs to ship and receive their films. Owners of the Home P.K. initially had to purchase a film, which ran in the $2.50 to $20 range ($59-$472 if priced today), and then pay an exchange fee of $0.30-$1 ($7-24 in 2013) when swapping one movie for another. Pathé’s method differed, as Pathescope owners instead paid a yearly subscription of $50-$100 ($1,180-$2,360 today), fees based on how many movies were rented at a time. Edison offered 50 films at launch, a number that grew to 160 by 1914; Pathé had 700 films by that time—a momentous disparity.
Due to a number of factors, including that it was notoriously difficult to operate, the Home P.K. never caught on. Edison’s company manufactured 4,600 projectors, but in the end sold just 500 (more than 8,000 Pathescopes had been sold at that point). Pathé Frères had a huge advantage not only in the number of titles available, but because their projectors were superior. It seems quality and quantity was just too much for Edison, and the Home Projecting Kinetoscope was retired in 1914.
Fast forward to the home video era: 1972 marked the year films became available on videocassette to rent, but it would take the arrival of the DVD format in 1997 before an entity had great success with home delivery of movie rentals. That same year, a new company called Netflix was founded. Their concept of offering films for rent by mail seemed revolutionary, and for modern America it most certainly was an innovative (and appealing) model. It was also an idea whose time had come—again.
Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.