The Birth of Cinema



In the late 1880s, famed American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) (and his young British assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860-1935)) in his laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey, borrowed from the earlier work of Muybridge, Marey, and Eastman. Their goal was to construct a device for recording movement on film, and another device for viewing the film. Dickson must be credited with most of the creative and innovative developments - Edison only provided the research program and his laboratories for the revolutionary work.

They first developed the Kinetophonograph (or Kinetophone), a precursor of the 1891 Kinetoscope (see below), that synchronized film projection with sound from a phonograph record. The projector was connected to the phonograph with a pulley system, but it didn't work very well and was difficult to synchronize. Although Edison is often credited with the development of early motion picture cameras and projectors, it was Dickson, in November 1890, who devised a crude camera that could photograph motion pictures - called a Kinetograph. This was one of the major reasons for the emergence of motion pictures in the 1890s.

The motor-driven camera was designed to capture movement with a synchronized shutter and sprocket system (Dickson's unique invention) that could move the film through the camera by an electric motor. The Kinetograph used film which was 35mm wide and had sprocket holes to advance the film. The sprocket system would momentarily pause the film roll before the camera's shutter to create a photographic frame (a still or photographic image). The formal introduction of the Kinetograph in October of 1892 set the standard for theatrical motion picture cameras still used today. However, moveable hand-cranked cameras soon became more popular, because the motor-driven cameras were heavy and bulky.

In 1891, Dickson also designed an early version of a movie-picture projector (an optical lantern viewing machine) based on the Zoetrope - called the Kinetoscope. Dickson filmed his first trial, Monkeyshines, the only surviving film from the cylinder kinetoscope, that featured the movement of laboratory assistant Sacco Albanese. The first public demonstration of motion pictures using the Kinetoscope occurred at the Edison Laboratories in mid-1891.

The floor-standing, box-like viewing device was basically a bulky, coin-operated, movie "peep show" cabinet for a single customer (in which the images on a continuous film loop-belt were viewed in motion as they were rotated in front of a shutter and an electric lamp-light). The Kinetoscope, the forerunner of the motion picture film projector (without sound), was finally patented on August 31, 1897 (Edison applied for the patent in 1891). The viewing device quickly became popular in carnivals, Kinetoscope parlors, amusement arcades, and sideshows. [By the 1897 patent date, however, both the camera (kinetograph) and the method of viewing films (kinetoscope) were on the decline with the advent of more modern screen projectors for larger audiences.]

In 1893, the world's first film production studio, the Black Maria, or the Kinetographic Theater, was built on the grounds of Edison's laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey, for the purpose of making film strips for the Kinetoscope. In early May of 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, Edison conducted the world's first public demonstration of films shot using the Kinetograph in the Black Maria, with a Kinetoscope viewer. The exhibited film showed three people pretending to be blacksmiths.

The first motion pictures made in the Black Maria were deposited for copyright by Dickson at the Library of Congress in August, 1893. In early January 1894, The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (aka Fred Ott's Sneeze) was one of the first series of short films made by Dickson for the Kinetoscope in Edison's Black Maria studio with fellow assistant Fred Ott. The short film was made for publicity purposes, as a series of still photographs to accompany an article in Harper's Weekly. It was the earliest surviving, copyrighted motion picture (or "flicker") - composed of an optical record of Fred Ott, an Edison employee, sneezing comically for the camera.

The first films shot at the Black Maria, a tar-paper-covered, dark studio room with a retractable roof, included segments of magic shows, plays, vaudeville performances (with dancers and strongmen), acts from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, various boxing matches and cockfights, and scantily-clad women. Most of the earliest moving images, however, were non-fictional, unedited, crude documentary, "home movie" views of ordinary slices of life - street scenes, the activities of police or firemen, or shots of a passing train. [Footnote: the 'Black Maria' studio appeared in Universal's comedy Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Cops (1955).]

On Saturday, April 14, 1894, Edison's Kinetoscope began commercial operation. The Holland Brothers opened the first Kinetoscope Parlor at 1155 Broadway in New York City and for the first time, they commercially exhibited movies, as we know them today, in their amusement arcade. Patrons paid 25 cents as the admission charge to view films in five kinetoscope machines placed in two rows. Nearly 500 people became cinema's first major audience during the showings of films with titles such as Barber Shop, Blacksmiths, Cock Fight, Wrestling, and Trapeze. Edison's film studio was used to supply films for this sensational new form of entertainment. More Kinetoscope parlors soon opened in other cities (San Francisco, Atlantic City, and Chicago).

Early spectators in Kinetoscope parlors were amazed by even the most mundane moving images in very short films (between 30 and 60 seconds) - an approaching train or a parade, women dancing, dogs terrorizing rats, and twisting contortionists. In 1895, Edison exhibited hand-colored movies, including Annabelle, the Dancer, in Atlanta, Georgia at the Cotton States Exhibition. In one of Edison's 1896 films entitled The Kiss (1896), May Irwin and John C. Rice re-enacted the final scene from the Broadway play musical The Widow Jones - it was a close-up of a kiss. Disgruntled, Dickson left Edison to form his own company in 1895, called the American Mutoscope Company.