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Moving Pictures: The History of Early Cinema
(Released July 2011)

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  by Brian Manley  


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Prehistory of Motion Pictures


Man Swallowed Rat skit
The Rat Swallower, as performed by Laterna Magica Galantee Show

While Thomas Edison is often credited with inventing the first motion picture camera in 1891 with the Kinetoscope, his ideas are a culmination of many theories and advances toward the construction of a camera-like device that captured motion beginning in the 17th century. The origin of this machine is the magic lantern, an early version of a slide projector that allowed images to pass through a lens with the use of light, often supplied by a kerosene lamp. (Pearson “Early Cinema” 21). The inventor of the magic lantern is debated, although most sources credit Dutch scientist Charles Hugyens in the late 1650s (Fulton 21). The magic lantern was used mostly for purely entertainment value, spawning extremely creative endeavors such as the “Phantasmagoria” shows of the 1790s in Europe, which were precursors to horror films, and the popular “Man Swallowed Rat” skit, which was loved for its comedy. Once the magic lantern entered the United States in the mid-19th century, it permeated American society, becoming widely popular and profitable. Before the creation of the “movie,” there already existed an audience eager to watch moving pictures on a screen (“Peep Show Pioneers”).

However, it took a long time before these crude projection machines were advanced enough to be able to simulate motion. In 1832, two centuries after the invention of the magic lantern, Simon Ritter von Stampfer of Vienna created the Stroboscope, whereby drawings from the rim of a disc viewed through the slits in a second disc simulated motion. Various versions of these ideas emerged during the 1830s, eventually employing the photographic process invented by Louis Daguerre. In 1853, Franz von Uchatius, another Viennese, used a magic lantern to project the Stroboscope images onto a wall, calling it the Projecting Phenakisticope. American machinist Coleman Sellers created the Kinematoscope in 1861, an instrument that mounted photographs onto a wheel of paddles.

Throughout most of the 19th century, the idea of moving pictures remained grounded in the use of static photographic stills projected rapidly. The concept of creating continuous live action did not occur until 1872 when British photographer Eadweard Muybridge was hired by California governor Leland Stanford to win a bet that all four hooves of a race horse left the ground when it ran. After several attempts, and after faster exposures became possible, Muybridge eventually developed the idea of setting 24 cameras in a row along the track, attaching a string to each camera shutter, and by an electric device, setting the cameras in successive operation as the horse passed. Muybridge continued perfecting the technique, mounting the photographs on a Phenakisticope and projecting them through a magic lantern. In 1879, the photographer toured Europe with his invention: the Zoopraxiscope. This process continued to be improved upon with Emile Reynaud’s 1882 Praxinoscope, which projected Muybridge’s images from behind a screen. In 1882, Etienne Jules Marey was the first to develop a single camera that could shoot multiple images, taking 12 photographs in one second. Marey’s Chronophotographs finally showed that a much more fluid motion was possible (Fulton 21; Mast and Kawin 12-14).

The Horse in Motion, Muybridge
The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge

After witnessing the work of Muybridge and Marey, American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison decided in 1888 to pursue the concept of a visual companion to his phonograph – thus creating, in essence, a music video. This coincided with George Eastman’s 1889 unveiling of Celluloid film for his Kodak still camera, an idea he had replicated from inventor Hannibal Goodwin. Although it is commonly accepted that Edison is the American father of the movies, in reality the inventor gave the idea support by hiring employees and assigning laboratory space to research the concept. The director of the project, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, would eventually invent the camera and projector for which Edison would take credit as his employer (Mast and Kawin 13).

As Dickson began his work, Louis Aimé Le Prince, a French photographer and inventor who had studied under Daguerre and was working in Leeds, England, had also turned to the idea of motion pictures. Le Prince had constructed two “receivers,” each with a single lens and a take-up spool for paper negatives. These paper negatives were exposed in his father-in-law’s garden and at Leeds Bridge in the summer of 1888, creating the earliest motion picture footage ever shot. Projecting the paper spools proved difficult for Le Prince, eventually leading him to experiment with sensitized Celluloid roll film (Burns). Despite his desire to continue experimenting, financial problems forced Le Prince to decide to join his family in New York City for a showing of his apparatus and films. He was last seen boarding a train for Paris on September 16, 1890. His disappearance was never solved (Herbert).

Le Prince film
Roundhay Garden Scene, 1888, by Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, YouTube

Dickson began experimenting with Eastman’s Celluloid film, and soon realized that motion pictures depend on light passing through the frame. Cutting the film sheets into strips and perforating the edges — an idea also approached by Praxinoscope inventor Reynaud — Dickson used a stop-motion device that took pictures onto the strips of emulsion-covered celluloid. From the negatives, Dickson made a positive print, placed it in a box-like structure propelled by a battery-operated motor, and ran the strips on a loop between an electric lamp and a shutter. This was the creation of what is considered the first motion picture film, and Dickson’s experiments were the first actual motion pictures recorded. The films were recorded onto the Kinetograph and viewed by looking through a slit in the top of a box called the Kinetoscope. Both were patented by Edison and Dickson in 1891 (Fulton 23). Those first movies were three films Dickson had entitled “Monkeyshines” and consisted of Dickson’s laboratory co-workers making hand motions in front of the Kinetograph to test the device. The date of the recordings of the films range from 1889 to 1890, at least a year after the footage shot by Le Prince. However, due to Edison’s prestige and popularity and because Le Prince’s pictures were shot on unstable paper rolls, these have been credited historically as the first Celluloid motion picture camera and the first continuous-film projector (Mast and Kawin 14).

Edison and Dickson previewed the Kinetoscope in May 1891 to a gathering of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, showing footage of Dickson doffing his hat (“Peep Show Pioneers”). The earliest whole film that survived this time period was “Fred Ott’s Sneeze,” which has been claimed to have been shot in 1891, but was not copyrighted until 1894 (Mast and Kawin 14).  

The period between 1888 and 1894 became an explosive race to create and, most importantly to some, to capture the patents for motion picture cameras and viewers. With the industrial revolution touching every aspect of life, inventors and entrepreneurs alike worked on machinery for motion photography. As inventions increased and developments were made, inventors fought to ensure their ideas and labor were not copied without compensation. While various versions of projectors and cameras were patented quickly, it was Edison who attempted to patent the basic mechanism of movie camera, leading to years of legal struggles that often forced his competitors out of business (Sklar 22-24). Despite his machines being far from perfected, Le Prince successfully patented them in the US, England and France between 1888 and 1890. Other inventors working on the same projects and notions raced and acquired patents for their specific cameras, including Wordsworth Donisthorpe and William Carr Croft’s Kinesigraph in 1890 in England. Various versions of the motion picture camera and projector were born during this era, as well as ideas to improve on that which had already been created. Notable concepts that added to the technology of motion pictures and the eventual birth of cinema include Hermann Casler’s Mutoscope nickelodeon; Georges Demeny’s Biographe camera; and Muybridge’s continuing work with the Zoopraxiscope. Edison and Dickson constructed the first film studio in New Jersey in 1893 called the “Black Maria,” in which the footage of Fred Ott’s sneeze was shot (Burns).

Fred's Ott Sneeze
"Fred Ott's Sneeze," 1894, by Thomas Edison Company, YouTube

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