Hard though it may be to believe for anyone raised since the advent of VCRs, there was a time when people actually had to leave their homes to see adult movies. Going to sleazy cinemas ended up being the main option, although it was predated by a little something known as the peep show machine. Now largely forgotten, these pieces of erotic entertainment history were once a common sight in penny arcades, fair grounds and other sometimes-questionable locales. So, what would one would look like if it were built using today's technology? California's Michael Ford decided to find out.

First, a quick history lesson

In the late 1890s, most peep shows utilized a
Mutoscope device. Viewers inserted a nickel into the machine, put their eyes up to its eyepiece, then turned a hand crank on its side. This caused the device to flip through a series of sequential still photographs on cards, which were mounted on a Roladex-like cylindrical core. The result was a jittery silent movie, of sorts, which usually lasted around a minute (or about 850 cards).

Co-existing with the Mutoscope was the Kinetoscope, which ran actual perforated film across a light source and shutter. Conceived by Thomas Edison, it was a forerunner to the movie projector - like the Mutoscope, however, it was designed for individual viewers, who paid to watch its films through an eyepiece.

When color photography came along, still images joined the "movies" in peep show machines. Through the use of stereoscopic eyepieces, these photos could sometimes be viewed in 3D.

By the time home video killed them off in the mid-70s, the machines were running conventional 8 mm and 16 mm film, using contemporary technology. It should be noted that peep shows originally showed quite innocuous fair, but turned to spicier subject matter as the public's interest in them declined.

Where the project started

Ford collects and restores old arcade machines, so it's not surprising that he came into possession of a late 50s/early 60s British peep show. It had a circular reel that accepted 40 pairs of stereoscopic still images, and for a 3-pence coin, viewers got enough time to view ten of them.

The machine no longer had any of those slides and due to its obscure picture format, he was unable to locate or reproduce any. A peep show machine with nothing to peep at isn't really much good, so Michael decided to cannibalize it and create a new one from scratch.

The basic machine

The wooden cabinet of the new machine was built and painted to evoke the era and the tackiness of the original. It incorporates the lettering, artwork and eyepiece from that machine, although pretty much all the other hardware is 21st Century.

Ford wanted to show both movies and 3D photographs, so he simply installed a PC in the cabinet. Its hard drive contains over 40 hours of "vintage" peep show movies from the 40s through early early 70s, which he ripped from DVDs that he purchased from the Something Weird and Alternative Cinema video companies. Also on that hard drive are over 500 pinup photos dating from the 20s to early 70s, from Classic Arcade Grafix. The photos are anaglyphic, meaning that they use a single stereoscopic image to create a 3D effect when viewed with traditional red/blue glasses.

Viewing the content

The computer plays both the films and photos off a VLC video player, which is controlled by reaching inside the cabinet and tapping a mouse - although it can also just run through a playlist on auto play. A 7-inch flatscreen monitor, which is viewed through the eyepiece, displays the images. When viewing the anaglyphic pinups, users slide a set of paper-and-cellophane 3D glasses (minus the arms) between the eyepiece and the monitor.

Sound, where it applies, comes from a pair of inexpensive PC speakers.

The motivation

This project was obviously fairly labor-intensive, and many people might wonder why Ford would want to devote so much effort to something so ... sordid.

"I built the peep show because it represents a part of Americana that has been forgotten even though it represents part of our history only 40 years ago," he told us. "These machines are almost impossible to find today because they are so rare. Almost all of them were thrown in the trash when they were no longer profitable for the operators and, unlike an arcade game, it is not something the average person puts in his or her home game room."

Not everyone knows how to react to his creation.

"Most people are bemused or maybe just confused," he said. "An arcade game they can understand because they relate to playing it. A peep show is something most people don't relate to. They cannot mentally place themselves in a time when there were no R-rated movies to appreciate what an unusual and ground-breaking device this was ... if I could not save a piece of this history, at least I could re-create it so it is not lost."

More details about the machine are available on Michael's website, The Mechanical Arcade.

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