On August 31, 1897, Thomas Edison patented his kinetographic camera, the forerunner of the modern motion picture film projector. Edison’s was not the first motion picture camera. The medium had existed for at least ten years. However, it was Edison’s motion picture camera that gained commercial acceptance and enabled America’s nascent film industry to grow and prosper.
“The cinema is an invention without a future.” – Louis Lumiere
Many inventors were working on a practical motion picture camera in the late 1800’s. Frenchman Louis Lumiere is often credited with creating the first true motion picture camera in 1895. His camera, called the “Cinematographe”, combined three functions into a single unit, a portable camera, film processing unit, and projector. Perhaps the most important element of Lumiere’s invention was its projection capability. This enabled a film to be projected onto a screen so more than one person at a time could view the film. Until then, only one person at a time could view a film by peering into a kinetoscope, a device which showed the film through a small window without projecting it onto a screen.
Incredibly, Lumiere did not believe his “Cinematographe" was commercially viable. By the early 1900’s his company largely abandoned motion picture development and concentrated on color photography instead.
The vacuum created by Lumiere’s departure was easily filled by Thomas Edison. The Edison Company’s work on film technology was undertaken primarily by his employee W.K.L. Dickson. Under Edison’s direction, Dickson built the first movie studio, called the “Black Maria”, in 1893. It was an odd building sealed with tarpaper to block all light from the outside, and which also possessed a retractable roof to allow natural light when desired.
"Black Maria", the world's first movie studio
Like Lumiere, Edison was initially skeptical that film could stand alone as a successful commercial venture. Edison’s initial goal with film technology was to create motion pictures with sound. He had invented the phonograph 20 years earlier. Now he hoped to synchronize moving pictures with phonographic sound as a way to sell more phonographs. Eventually, Edison decided the inclusion of synchronized sound in motion pictures was simply too difficult, and sought instead to improve upon the kinetoscope, the one-person film viewing machine.
Edison’s and Dickson’s efforts achieved the first true success with their August 31, 1897 patent for an improved kinetographic camera, described by Edison as “a certain new and useful Improvement in Kinetoscopes.” It was similar to Lumiere’s earlier invention, but unlike Lumiere’s camera, it was supported by the powerful and prestigious Edison Company. During the next 15 years, Edison continued to make improvements to the device, and eliminated competition through new patents and threatened or actual lawsuits involving competing products.
In the meantime, thousands of motion pictures were created in the years just before and after the turn of the century. Most of these early films have been lost, but many have been retained and digitized. Edison did not believe audiences would tolerate more than a few minutes of motion pictures. He thought that the constant “flicker” produced by those early films would prove too annoying to sit through for any length of time. Thus, the early films are all very short in duration, rarely lasting more than five minutes.
Edison and his peers created a new industry, one that is among the most profitable in the world. That is not all. More importantly, they helped to create a powerful new art form. Film is both a reflection of, and a primary influence on our culture. Film has spread America's image and values across the globe. It has fostered imitators who wish to emulate America's celebrity culture and materialism. It has also created an anti-American backlash in many places, and has likely inspired a large measure of anti-Western terrorism.
The movies of today bear little resemblance to those created by Edison and his peers in the late 19th century. Those short films, however, provide a fascinating look at the world that existed at the turn of the 20th century. I can’t help but wonder what motion pictures will look like a hundred years hence, at the turn of the 22nd century.