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AUGUST 31, 2011 8:44AM

Today in History: The Movies!

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edison projecting kinetoscope
Thomas Edison's projecting kinetoscope, also called a kinetographic camera

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.


Kinetoscope, circa 1895

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 film studio

"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.


'Three Acrobats", produced by the Thomas Edison Company, 1899


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.


The Roundhay Garden Scene, the oldest live motion picture in existence, 1888



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I enjoyed this post thorougly and hope that the editor has the good sense to pick it and place on the cover. The videos were incredible. I had never seen them.
Steve, thanks for posting about the anniversary of Edison's important patent! I only knew a little bit about this early history of cinematography and Edison's involvement so I was interested to read more. Lumiere's prediction sounded a lot like one that I think came out of IBM in the '50s saying there would never be a need for more than a few computers in the world--back in the days when they had vacuum tubes as part of the computer. I caught part of a show a few days ago that talked about Eastman working together with Edison on the film that was used in those early days.

One thing I can say about some old family films that many have in their homes is the technology is so simple that you can still watch the movies on simple projectors, unlike family movies shot on discontinued formats like Sony reel to reel video or Betamax both of which would require you to have temperamental playback decks that are hard to find unless you still own one that is in perfect working condition.
Amazing. In a hundred years, it will probably be holographic, and we'll be able to walk around in the scene, viewing it from different angles as the story plays. That would put a lot of pressure on actors, though . . . no more "good side."
Miguela, gracias! I appreciate your nice comment. Those old films, short as they are, really are quite fascinating to me, and I'm glad you enjoyed them, too.

John, Lumiere did OK in the end, I think. He was instrumental in developing color film, and there are some amazing color photographs dating before WWI that his inventions made possible. To your point about IBM, I seem to remember Western Union coming to a similar conclusion about the prospects of telephony replacing the telegraph. I'm sure we could find a lot of other examples of amazingly bad corporate decisions about new inventions!

Owl, you may be correct, and I would expect there to be some very interactive applications to film as well. I just hope human actors and actual scenery aren't completely replaced with computer graphics!
Great post on a fascinating subject. Like exquisite frescoes on the walls of history's cathedrals, the movies have an impact on human culture that is profound, far-reaching. I believe we are currently in an era of enchantment to an art form which is revolutionizing mankind's perception of reality.
Wonderful post. I love the name Lumiere, and that it is now synonymous with light.
Thank you for providing us with insight into the history-making processes of cinema.
I'm willing to bet that in the future we'll all be programmed; insert chips into cerebral cortex and voila! Lights, camera, action... ;)
This topic especially has meaning to me. Some foolish school gave me a piece of parchment claiming that I knew something on the general topic of film. It's sad that very few of the early films survived. Though it's heartening to know that the classic comedic "kick in the pants" was one of the early cinematic jokes.
I can't think of too many more inventions that have changed the world like motion pictures. Thanks for noting this important anniversary.
M. Chariot, I was hoping you would find this post, and I'm honored you found it of interest.

Greenhorn, I had that same thought as I wrote this.

Belinda, more than a quarter century ago I read an interview with a scientist a Bell Labs who had a very similar thought about that chip. It was his theory that telephone conversations would take place in that way, and one would assume it would also work with visual media.

Stim, yes, its gratifying to know that such high-brow entertainment has been with us so long.

Jeanette, film and the telephone, near contemporary technologies, certainly helped to shape the 20th century. Add to those inventions the harnessing of electricity and the discovery of massive petroleum reserves, also occurring at roughly the same time, and you have the primary forces that have shaped our lives today.
One of the field trips I went on back in grade school was to the Edison Lab/Museum in West Orange, NJ. The replica Black Maria there actually had a circular track so the open roof could be made to direct the sunlight. Genius. (Well, duh!) I also remember the factory floor: a gigantic space which was filled with pulleys and belts connected to every piece of machinery.

I enjoyed your telling of this piece of history.
Stacey, you probably heard this when you visited the Black Maria replica. It got its name because its appearance resembled the old horse-drawn paddy wagons of those days, which were called "black Marias".
Edison wanted to invent moving pictures to accent his music machine. He really was ahead of his time, even back then he envisioned MTV!
Oh the movies...Who can live without them ? Excellent.
Film history buff here. Never could understand why Lumiere thought so little of his invention. Imagine it, the best films would have been coming out of France instead of the US. People would be saying, "I'm going to go to Paris and make my career in film!"

Movie goers would all be saying, "You know, his accent's not bad for a gauche Americain." And action movies? Probably would still be better if they were made in the USA, no-one does action movies like the US.

By the way, you should see "The Great Train Robbery" from 1926 I think it is. In it is a young 19 year old Marion Morrison taking the role of one of the first White Hats in movies. Umm for those that don't know, that would be John Wayne.

One of my favored college curricula: Film.
Torman, that's the first time I've ever heard Thomas Edison and MTV mentioned in the same sentence.

Algis, it's hard to imagine the world without the movies or movie stars.

dunniteowl, one can't help but wonder if Lumiere had second thoughts late in life. And yes, I have seen John Wayne in "The Great Train Robbery". Thank you for your interesting comment!
Always enjoy your posts, Steve. Can't imagine what it will be like in 100 years. Can't imagine even 10 years hence, the way things are going so fast.
And then there was William Selig---who was "inspired"/tried to rip off--you be the judge--Edison and created the first Chicago studio at the corner of Irving Park and Western. 200 acres of studio. Made the first version of another Chicago guy's book ---L. Frank Baum--and his OZ.

And there was some mischief involved. . . .
CommunicationsLC, are you referring to the Essanay Studio? It was founded on Wells St. in 1907 and moved to Argyle in 1908. It had quite a collection of early talent, which, in addition to Chaplin, included Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, and Tom Mix, among others. True pioneers, to be sure!

Lea, good point. Things are changing quickly these days, especially in the world of media.
ChiGuy, I don't know much about Selig, but from the little I do know I'd say he no more ripped off Edison than Edison ripped off Lumiere. The truth is, many were working simultaneously on motion picture technology in the 1890's, and it's really difficult to pinpoint who, exactly, was the leader of the pack. Edison seems to win, mainly because he was already a very powerful man with a powerful company backing him up. Thank you for the link -- it was very interesting, and a nice compliment to what I've jotted down here.
You always provide a service by posting your research. I am fascinated by the films you show. Thanks for enlightening and educating, procopius!
Very interesting, and I love what you say at the end - one of the reasons I am enthralled by silent films is that they're moving time capsules - as you point out, we can catch a glimpse of life more than a century ago.

The history of cinema is fascinating-- I recently saw a 3-part British documentary called "The Birth of Hollywood" that was utterly intriguing. At the same time, I always feel like Georges Melies, a French magician-turned-filmmaker, who is credited with inventing some special effects, and whose films are strange jewels, never gets any credit. European cinema and American cinema seem to diverge so quickly - and it's true the US dominated the industry from early on.

This was a great post and I'm glad it got an EP. Thanks for reminding us of the anniversary of a very, very important invention!
rwnj, thank you. Glad you stopped by.

dianaani, kind of makes you want to find more of those old films, huh?

Alyssa, the Americans and French certainly took the early lead, and the French would have done so even more had Lumiere not shifted his focus. Germany came along shortly after and had a tremendous impact as well, of course.
Great piece of history for us to consider Steve. What a distance we've taken it with digital...I own a projector the size of a cellphone!
Gary, yeah, but have you used that little camera to film anyone getting a swift kick in the behind?
kitd & Rob, thank you. Glad y'all stopped by!
Fascinating!!!! When I was a young boy, Edison was my hero. His biography was one of the more influential books of my grade-school years. Thanks for the memories.
Ralph, thanks for your comment. Can you imagine the world without the inventions of Edison? then, remove his contemporary Alexander Graham Bell, and we are living in quite a different world, aren't we?
An informative history. Now if someone in the future will figure a way to send its films back to 2011 we'll be all set.