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article number 191
article date 12-13-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Invention of Movies (Motion Pictures) Has Promise, 1889
by Roger Burlingame

(Written in 1940.)

The history of the invention of motion pictures is inherently complex. When we speak of the invention, do we mean the camera or the “peep-show” or the projector? Do we mean film or the devices which move it or the lighting behind it, or the lenses in front of it? Do we mean the photoplay, the news-reel, the animated cartoon? Do we mean the sets or the lighting or the studio? Do we mean the sound track or the color filters or the amplifiers?

The history of the invention of motion pictures is inherently complex. When we speak of the invention, do we mean the camera or the “peep-show” or the projector? Do we mean film or the devices which move it or the lighting behind it, or the lenses in front of it? Do we mean the photoplay, the news-reel, the animated cartoon? Do we mean the sets or the lighting or the studio? Do we mean the sound track or the color filters or the amplifiers?

We must mean all of these things, for they are all parts of what we call the movies today and they had a hundred or more inventors. The disentangling of the facts as to priority in all the fields is a fascinating task for the special historian and we gladly leave it to him.

The undoubted fact that the motion-picture industry has reached its highest development in the United States must not blind us to the fact that its basic technical invention is not wholly or even largely American. Much partisan history, of course, has been written in France, England and Germany claiming priority. Mr. Ramsaye’s book, which has been officially endorsed by Edison, assigns much credit to America. But the fact is that the optical joker was being ardently pursued in many lands at precisely the same moment and that most of the pursuers were quite independent of one another. Had they collaborated, we should probably have got our movies sooner and we should very likely have better ones today.

It is evident that the basic principle of the cinema was commercially in use considerably before there was any instantaneous photography. What we call today “the animated cartoon” came first. A multitude of devices with fine names derived from the classic languages stemmed from the productions of Plateau and Stampfer. Among them were the Deadalum and the Zoetrope. But a few inventors carried the animated cartoon a step farther. In 1853, Franz von Uchatius, an Austrian army officer, borrowed the charming two-hundred-year-old invention of a Jesuit scholar, the magic lantern, to throw the animated images upon the wall. Uchatius used a glass disc for his pictures. As it revolved, a shutter with a slit in it framed each picture in succession before the lens and covered the movement of the disc. This was a basic essential for motion-picture projection.

But the truly great nineteenth-century Disney was the Frenchman, Emile Reynaud. Into his Praxinoscope, patented in 1877, he injected a new principle, since forgotten. Instead of seeing the successive pictures, the spectator looking into this device saw their images reflected by mirrors. These mirrors formed a polygon round the central drum of the instrument. Each reflected a picture which faced it from the inside of the outer drum. As the double drum revolved, the spectator saw the successive images, not separately and intermittently but merging into one another, and the illumination was never cut off.

Reynaud was not, however, content with his toy. He went on to a projection device which used the same principle. The projector also threw on the screen, a stationary scene in which the figures—Snow Whites and Donald Ducks of his time—were made to act. The “Pantomimes Lumineuses” which were being shown commercially at the Musée Grévin in Paris in 1892 by Reynaud’s projector, the Théâtre Optique, created a furor in Paris.

They were brilliant and lovely with none of the jar or flicker which made most early motion pictures so hard on the eyes. Reynaud’s projector used a long film, wound on two reels. From this, light was reflected to revolving mirrors and thence to the screen. Effects were sometimes produced by reversing the direction in which the film moved, so that Pierrot, for example, having climbed up a wall, could be made to climb down the other side by merely running the pictures backward.

Program Of Reynaud’s Pantomimes Lumineuses. It was successful in Paris.

It is a pity that Reynaud’s principle, which has been called “optical compensation,” has not been used commercially since his time. Today, of course, the standards of the great motion-picture industry could not be made to conform to it without complete, prohibitively expensive retooling. It might, however, at some stage have been introduced. By Disney, perhaps. . . . It would save film. Only some four images were necessary per second to produce his illusion. Sixteen was the standard for the silent film. But there were other advantages, luminosity and continuity among them.

Historically, Reynaud is important. He first projected animated cartoons. He gave the first commercial public showing of moving pictures on a screen. But he never tackled photography with any success. By the time he came to it, late in his career, others had gone ahead of him in matters of direction and scenic effect.

Reynaud Praxinoscope.

Motion-picture photography has a history separate from that of projection. Coleman Sellers of Philadelphia tried in 1861 to synthesize motion from posed pictures. Pictures had to be posed at that date because the cameras and plates were incapable of capturing rapid motion. His Kinematoscope was a paddle wheel, looked at through a stereoscope. It must have been pretty bad. One cannot guess at the phases of a movement. What any single phase of a continuous movement looks like has been taught us by the instantaneous photograph. Exactly how much it has taught is evident from a study of the work of Muybridge and Marey.

Eadweard Muybridge has been treated by Terry Ramsaye with much contempt. The fact remains that he did succeed in breaking down movement into its parts and showing these in static photographs. Whether or not he did it with the assistance of more scientific experience than his own, the photographs were there to show something that had, apparently, never been observed before. Muybridge, in 1883, ranged a series of them, in the form of transparent, positive plates, round a wheel and produced the illusion of motion. Being given to a certain pomposity in the matter of names (as his own attests) he called this apparatus the Zoopraxiscope. Meanwhile, however, his work had attracted the attention of a true scientist in France.

Etienne Jules Marey had, since 1870, been working with devices to show the positions taken by various animals in motion. In 1878, he saw some of the Muybridge photographs which showed precisely what he had been trying to achieve mechanically and graphically. He immediately got in touch with Muybridge, who brought many photographs to Paris. Marcy, after long examination of them, set to work making some of his own. But, instead of using a battery of cameras, he used one. He and his assistant, Georges Demeny, thus made what may be called the “first” cinema camera. It was not wholly original; he borrowed from the photographic revolver of Jules Janssen, but he made, on an octagonal disc, a series of twelve pictures which could afterward give the illusion of motion when revolved in a proper apparatus. By 1889, like several other experimenters, he had adopted film. His apparatus using film was exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1889, where Edison also had an exhibit. Doctor Marcy himself showed it to Edison.

The year 1889 was a highly significant one in motion-picture history. As we look over the careers of various inventors during the eighties, we find them struggling in several parts of the world, with glass plates, sheets and squares of inflexible, more or less transparent, celluloid and variously treated paper. These were either difficult for projection or almost prohibitively cumbersome in a camera which was expected to work fast. After 1889, we find inventors all using a flexible, transparent strip which could be wound on reels. The answer to this mystery is that film had its commercial birth in that year.

It had been invented before this. We have seen that the Goodwin film was invented in 1887. There is evidence also that William Friese-Greene was making his own in England in 1888. At about the same time, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was using what he described as “an endless sheet of insoluble gelatin.”

No adequate history of the screen can omit the tragic stories of Friese-Greene and Le Prince, whatever absolute priorities they may or may not establish.

William Friese-Greene, a brilliant if somewhat un-co-ordinated English inventor, devised, in 1889, a practical cinematic camera using film. There is good reason to believe that he made the film himself, but it is certain that he used it before it was available for purchase. The film was advanced in the camera by means of perforations along its edge. A toothed sprocket mechanism accomplished the intermittent motion necessary, bringing the film to rest for each exposure as the photographer turned the crank. On November 15, 1889, there appeared in London, a news story telling of the projection of photographs, taken by Friese-Greene, upon a screen. This camera seems to be the first on record which contains all the basic essentials of present-day motion-picture photography.

In the course of his career, Friese-Greene also patented cinematophotography in color by means of filters, as well as series stereoscopic photography. The tragedy was that all these inventions came to nothing as far as the inventor himself was concerned. English conservatism has seldom shown to worse advantage. British capital simply refused to be interested and, in 1891, his property was sold for debt. Possibly his brief confinement in a debtors’ jail at that time gave the public the final impression of a down-and-outer so that his later remarkable inventions awakened no confidence.

The other tragedy was more spectacular. Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, a French-born American citizen, divided the period of his invention between New York and Leeds, England. He began with multiple lenses on the Muybridge principle, but all mounted in a single camera. He went from this to a single lens and what he described as “transparencies” to be moved, intermittently, by a perforated band or ribbon and a sprocket. By 1890 he too had worked out all the basic devices for cinematography and projection.

But in that year, having previously established his wife in a comfortable house in New York which he intended to use as an experimental laboratory, and having taken out his first American citizenship papers, he disappeared. He was, at the time, on a visit to France. He got on a train at Dijon, having said good-bye to his brother and was never seen or heard of again. It is an interesting commentary on the attitude toward communications in the period that investigation was not begun for many weeks—until, in New York, he failed to arrive. Then detectives of both France and England concentrated on the mystery with no result. Not a trace of Le Prince or his baggage has ever turned up. Nor could any one discover a motive of suicide or murder … barring a common robbery. Le Prince was happy, moderately rich, with every promise of future success. It was one of the most complete, one of the least explainable vanishings of modern history.

Le Prince’s story has been well told with adequate documentation. Some of his instruments, which he had left in England, are today on exhibition in Kensington Museum. The main reason for introducing him here is that certain details of his process, had they been adopted by the industry, would have improved modern pictures. One was the size of his frames, which were 2 1/8 inches instead of the present universal 1 x ¾ inches. But Le Prince’s inventions were forgotten after his personal fade-out, and by the time they were dug up by research, the process of the industry had been standardized and the whole industry tooled accordingly.

What standardized them? Here is the crux of our story. In the pages that follow, the reader may be inclined to regard that standardizing dictatorship as an octopus sucking into itself the fruit of others’ labor; of a ruthless giant crushing opposition.

Yet standardization had to take place if a mass-production industry was to be established. To avoid much waste of time and dissipation of effort, someone had to be ruthless. It is the old story of the collective impulse necessary to all mass production. If practical invention is to work toward this end, it must be backed by concentration of resources and a technological focus.

A piece of Eastman film reached the laboratory of Thomas Edison at some time during the summer or fall of 1889. Edison had been thinking about motion pictures before this. He himself dates his first thought of this in 1887. It would have been surprising if so keen an observer of invention had failed to notice the large number of experiments in this direction which had been going on for more than half a century. But Edison thought of pictures in connection with his phonograph. He wanted, he says, to synchronize sight and sound.

In this connection, he had studied the Zoetrope of Desvignes as well as the photographs of Muybridge. Whether, by 1887, he knew much about the work of Marcy makes little difference, for he saw Marcy’s invention in 1889 and saw in it the value of the use of film. No doubt Edison had thought of film already, for the thought had occurred to almost every one by that time who had sought to make photographs that would move.


Characteristically, the American people in general have assigned to Edison the credit for the entire invention of the cinema. They have been supported in this belief by some historians.

Yet Edison, at the time, made no such claim. On the contrary, he specifically included Muybridge, Dickson and Marcy as co-inventors. It has since been shown that every element of Edison’s camera, mechanical or optical, including his famous “perforations,” existed previous to his patents. Yet, as usual, he co-ordinated these matters into something that was fully workable and he brought his product into commerce. In doing it, he used his peculiar genius, which so many people have chosen to regard as “wizardry” or magic.

Thomas Edison concentrated, to the exclusion of everything else, on drawing in to himself every scrap of material he needed to launch a technological, commercial venture. Whether this “belonged” to someone else was a question which his mind was not equipped to agitate. If he was asked the question and forced to try to think it out, his articulated response would be that everything “belonged” to commerce, to society, to general knowledge.

Having absorbed this material to himself, he put his own rubber-stamp of possession on it as a purely practical matter — simply to keep it all under one roof, so to speak, where it could be effectively handled. The academic ethics of all this belongs in another story than ours. We are concerned with the fact that Edison’s kind of thinking has made the collective, industrial America of which we seem to be so proud. Let the rugged industrial individualist beware of juggling with this fact, for before he can say Jack Robinson (or Herbert Hoover) he will be hoist higher than a kite by his own petard.

Yet as Edison went at the movies we observe a queer lapse in his usual powers. He made up for it in the end by sheer force, sheer octopus sucking, pure dictatorship. These exercises covered some of his lapses and did the trick of establishing certain inflexible rules and regulations. One trouble was that they were not altogether good rules. Another, from Edison’s personal point of view, was that their enforcement came too late.

He was busy as a bird dog when the movies first came under his ken. His mind was filled with much bigger and grander things like the crushing of ore. To him, at the moment, any device for making pictures move was just a toy. Yet the recent success of his other toy, the phonograph, prevented him from ignoring its toy possibilities in commerce. So, reserving his own energies for more dignified pursuits, he turned the movies over to an astute and clever inventor in his employ, the brilliant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson.

Dickson was such a lovable person that his friends have forgiven him some of the amazing flights of his fancy which have troubled historians. To weed out the facts from Dickson’s accounts of what he thought were about to become facts is a task that has greatly complicated research into the history of the cinema. Yet, between the lines of his record, there appears evidence that he did most of the work on the so-called Edison inventions in this field. This is in spite of Dickson’s infallible loyalty to his chief (even after he left his employ), which gives Edison full credit.

Yet occasionally, Edison called Dickson to time. From the first, Dickson seems to have dreamed of the screen. Edison would have none of it. Under his toy-complex he wanted motion pictures kept strictly in the money-making toy sphere. There emerged, therefore, from the Edison shops, a large, rentable toy dignified by the highly unoriginal name of Kinetoscope. This was in fact a peep-show. One saw movies by gluing one’s eyes to an aperture. The commercial kinetoscopes required a nickel in a slot before the pictures should begin to move.

Before a powerful light (which Edison was well equipped to furnish) a strip of film with sixteen positive photographs per foot moved continuously three feet per second. It did not move intermittently. Intermittence was provided by an automatic shutter. It was this shutter process which required such great light power. When other experimenters tried to use it for throwing pictures on a screen, no light could be found powerful enough to do the job.

Along with the kinetoscope came the kinetograph, equally imitative in name. This was the camera which took the pictures. It had to have an intermittent mechanism, for no continuously moving film could be made to record an image. It was made intermittent by the use of an old clock mechanism called the Geneva cross.

Geneva cross clock mechanism used to make output shaft at top stop rotating for a short time. Input shaft is still rotating.

In April, 1894, the Dickson-Edison kinetoscope burst upon an astonished public at a “kinetoscope parlor” in New York. It was an immediate success. No one had enough nickels to satisfy his craving to see the little figures jump and dance. What they did, made no difference to any one as long as they were lifelike and moved. The peepers were fascinated beyond words at seeing a man sneeze or perform the most meaningless capers.

Meanwhile, the major part of the labor had been in making the films. Edison built his celebrated “Black Maria” at West Orange, said to be the first studio. It was arranged so that it would rotate and thus adapt itself to the position of the sun, for instantaneous photography had not yet been adjusted to artificial lighting. In the Black Maria, Edison staged all sorts of nonsense, performed mostly by the more histrionic or comic of his employees like the celebrated sneezing Fred Ott.

But the public, once tickled by the kinetoscope, became insatiable. With each satisfaction, desire increased and grew complex. So Edison had to stage prize-fights and dances in his Black Maria and soon the public were demanding pictures of real personages in these acts. Edison hired them to come to West Orange and perform. One of these was the popular dancer, Carmencita. So, in the Black Maria, the great American “star system” was first transferred from stage to film.

The inadequacy of the kinetoscope as a showman’s device soon became evident to a good many people. Only one observer at a time could see one machine’s pictures, and then only by standing in a cramped, uncomfortable position. Edison’s little fifty-foot films did not keep the kinetoscope fans in that position very long as they only lasted about a minute. But why not arrange moving pictures so that a whole theatreful of people could see them at once, sitting in comfortable seats? And then, having got them in their seats, why not give them a longer show than the kinetoscope could provide?

It would have been surprising if projection had not occurred to many people at once. It had already occurred to European experimenters, as we have seen, before the kinetoscope appeared. With the tangible kinetoscope before them and the magic lantern in all their past experience, recurrence of projection invention was inevitable.

Drawing of Edison Kinetoscope by Poyett.

In Europe, through some strange lapse of his usual business acumen, Edison had failed to patent his machine. When it was taken abroad, therefore, inventors had carte blanche to do what they liked with motion picture invention with no danger of interference from the Edison interests. In London, Robert W. Paul adapted the kinetoscope to projection and was soon packing theatres. In Paris, with the Reynaud tradition in the background, the Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, scored an equal success. Later Georges Mélèis invented the photoplay and the true motion-picture studio equipped with scenery, scene-shifting devices and a multitude of tricks for which, being a professional magician, he was peculiarly gifted. Europe, especially France, in these years gained a head start on America in all the technics of the cinema—a head start which was not lost until the World War.

In the United States, the projection field was starred by the Latham family of Virginia and by Thomas Armat. The once bright star of Charles Francis Jenkins, Armat’s occasional collaborator, has been somewhat dimmed by later research.

Much space in screen history has been given to Major Woodville Latham and his gay sons, Percy, Gray and Otway, because they were so picturesque. The boys, allegedly wandering up and down Broadway in its age of relative innocence searching out its bars and its beauties, seem to have forecast the mythology of Hollywood in a manner irresistible to popular writers.

In contrast to this dissipation stands the fine old figure of the Southern major, laboriously inventing projectors in a little laboratory. The boys, ever avid for schemes to make money, dickered with Edison’s aides and arranged for prize-fights for the kinetoscope while the major, ably and probably indispensably assisted by the fine technician, Eugene Lauste, worked on projection. The main Latham contribution was a reel which made possible a greater length of film. The reel necessitated a loop of free film which was cast off by an unwinding mechanism. All the Latham patents were later acquired by Edison.

The whole Latham affair was hampered by intrigue, which moved in and out of the Edison interests. The primary reason for its failure was its domination by the one great technical fault of the Edison mechanism, the continuously moving film in the projector. On the screen, adequate luminosity was impossible unless each picture or “frame” could be brought to rest behind the lens for an appreciable instant. Yet Latham did establish a historic record by giving the first, American, public, commercial showing of screen pictures on May 20, 1895.

Thomas Armat overcame the difficulty. By a cam movement, adapted from a French invention, he arranged “that each picture be given a long period of rest and illumination on the screen, and a relatively brief period of movement from frame to frame.” This was the answer to the light difficulty which Edison had missed because he had refused to be serious about projection. With Armat’s revelation (scarcely cataclysmic, as so many Europeans had previously disclosed it) Edison grew more serious.

At this period, apparently, no one could be persuaded of the value of any invention unless the Wizard made it. Thus the struggling Armat, though his projection was excellent (for the era), could not get enough publicity to finance it on a large scale. The Edison interests then convinced him that if Edison’s name should be attached to his machine, it would instantly capture the public fancy and Armat was sensible enough to agree. Thus the Edison Vitascope came into being and, as the newspapers all rushed to herald this new feat of the Wizard’s, the screen picture was launched in America.

Interior of Edison’s Kinetographic Theatre. A camera and a recording phonograph are shown taking the scene being enacted in the background. Probably an entirely fanciful drawing. It was, however, prophetic.

Edison’s triumph was now complete. As the Vitascope spread it provided much activity for the Edison film production plant. The scope of the Black Maria was enlarged and directors were called in to stage “colossal” outdoor or “location” enterprises. Foreign competition entered with the Lumière and Méliès films. The Edison studios almost burst with such rival productions as “The Great Train Robbery,” directed and photographed in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter. By this time, however, there was plenty of domestic activity, more or less controlled by the Edison octopus.

Scene from 1903 movie, The Great Train Robbery.

The attempted monopoly was, of course, based on the Edison patents. The old device of the “combination” instituted by sewing-machine inventors and reaching such large proportions in the automobile industry, came into use for the cinema. The Motion Picture Patents Company, to which the Edison patents were assigned, operated for years to give privilege to a chosen few and keep out outsiders. Many volumes might be written on nothing but the litigation which resulted. The combination was finally nullified by a decision in 1917 based on an intricate legal technicality. But by this time, the Edison patents had been sustained so long that the whole technology was based on them.

By 1900, the period of basic invention was finished—at least in the visual province of the movies. Soon after the opening of the new century, the great industry began in America. As the photoplay arrived from abroad and showed its power, vast capital was poured into the hands of producers. The involved competition, fights, litigation, the building up of the huge companies which dominate production today as well as the extinction by fair means or foul of lesser constellations, do not belong to our story.

But we cannot leave the invention period without a final correction of popular misunderstanding. Mr. Ramsaye states:

“It is provable that there is not now and never has been, subsequent to the year 1888, any motion picture film machine whatsoever of any relation to the screen art of today that is not descended by traceable steps from the Kinetoscope.” This statement is largely true (or was when Ramsaye wrote it in 1926), but it should be clarified by adding, that no basic part of the kinetoscope was original with Edison and that the reason the screen art of today derives so much from it is that Edison, by his patents was able to dominate the whole American industry in its infancy.

So it was Edison, after all, who sold the movie to the great American public.

Famous scene from The Great Train Robbery.
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