The History of Film
The Pre-1920s

Early Cinematic Origins and
the Infancy of Film

Part 1


Film History of the Pre-1920s

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5


Film History by Decade

Index | Pre-1920s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s
1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s
| 2010s




Innovations Necessary for the Advent of Cinema:

Optical toys, shadow shows, 'magic lanterns,' and visual tricks have existed for thousands of years. Many inventors, scientists, manufacturers and scientists have observed the visual phenomenon that a series of individual still pictures set into motion created the illusion of movement - a concept termed persistence of vision. This illusion of motion was first described by British physician Peter Mark Roget in 1824, and was a first step in the development of the cinema.

A number of technologies, simple optical toys and mechanical inventions related to motion and vision were developed in the early to late 19th century that were precursors to the birth of the motion picture industry:

  • [A very early version of a "magic lantern" was invented in the 17th century by Athanasius Kircher in Rome. It was a device with a lens that projected images from transparencies onto a screen, with a simple light source (such as a candle).]

  • 1824 - the invention of the Thaumatrope (the earliest version of an optical illusion toy that exploited the concept of "persistence of vision" first presented by Peter Mark Roget in a scholarly article) by an English doctor named Dr. John Ayrton Paris

  • 1831 - the discovery of the law of electromagnetic induction by English scientist Michael Faraday, a principle used in generating electricity and powering motors and other machines (including film equipment)

  • 1832 - the invention of the Fantascope (also called Phenakistiscope or "spindle viewer") by Belgian inventor Joseph Plateau, a device that simulated motion. A series or sequence of separate pictures depicting stages of an activity, such as juggling or dancing, were arranged around the perimeter or edges of a slotted disk. When the disk was placed before a mirror and spun or rotated, a Zoetropespectator looking through the slots 'perceived' a moving picture.

  • 1834 - the invention and patenting of another stroboscopic device adaptation, the Daedalum (renamed the Zoetrope in 1867 by American William Lincoln) by British inventor William George Horner. It was a hollow, rotating drum/cylinder with a crank, with a strip of sequential photographs, drawings, paintings or illustrations on the interior surface and regularly spaced narrow slits through which a spectator observed the 'moving' drawings.

  • 1839 - the birth of still photography with the development of the first commercially-viable daguerreotype (a method of capturing still images on silvered, copper-metal plates) by French painter and inventor Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre

  • 1841 - the patenting of calotype (or Talbotype, a process for printing negative photographs on high-quality paper) by British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot

  • 1861 - the invention of the Kinematoscope, patented by Philadelphian Coleman Sellers, an improved rotating paddle machine to view (by hand-cranking) a series of stereoscopic still pictures on glass plates that were sequentially mounted in a cabinet-box

  • 1869 - the development of celluloid by John Wesley Hyatt, patented in 1870 and trademarked in 1873 - later used as the base for photographic film

  • 1870 - the first demonstration of the Phasmotrope (or Phasmatrope) by Henry Renno Heyl in Philadelphia, that showed a rapid succession of still or posed photographs of dancers, giving the illusion of motion

  • 1877 - the invention of the Praxinoscope by French inventor Charles Emile Reynaud - it was a 'projector' device with a mirrored drum that created the illusion of movement with picture strips, a refined version of the Zoetrope with mirrors at the center of the drum instead of slots; public demonstrations of the Praxinoscope were made by the early 1890s with screenings of 15 minute 'movies' at his Parisian Theatre Optique

  • 1879 - Thomas Alva Edison's first public exhibition of an efficient incandescent light bulb, later used for film projectors

Late 19th Century Inventions and Experiments: Muybridge, Marey, Le Prince and Eastman

Muybridge's 1878 Horse in MotionPioneering Britisher Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), an early photographer and inventor, was famous for his photographic loco-motion studies (of animals and humans) at the end of the 19th century (such as 1882's published "The Horse in Motion"). In the 1870s, Muybridge experimented with instantaneously recording the movements of a galloping horse, first at a Sacramento (California) race track. In June, 1878, he successfully conducted a 'chronophotography' experiment in Palo Alto (California) for his wealthy San Francisco benefactor, Leland Stanford, using a multiple series of cameras to record a horse's gallops - this conclusively proved that all four of the horse's feet were off the ground at the same time.

zoopraxiscope discMuybridge's pictures, published widely in the late 1800s, were often cut into strips and used in a Praxinoscope, a descendant of the zoetrope device, invented by Charles Emile Reynaud in 1877. The Praxinoscope was the first 'movie machine' that could project a series of images onto a screen. Muybridge's stop-action series of photographs helped lead to his own 1879 invention of the Zoopraxiscope (or "zoogyroscope", also called the "wheel of life"), a primitive motion-picture projector machine that also recreated the illusion of movement (or animation) by projecting images - rapidly displayed in succession - onto a screen from photos printed on a rotating glass disc.

Marey's pelicans in flightTrue motion pictures, rather than eye-fooling 'animations', could only occur after the development of film (flexible and transparent celluloid) that could record split-second pictures. Some of the first experiments in this regard were conducted by Parisian innovator and physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey in the 1880s. He was also studying, experimenting, and recording bodies (most often of flying animals, such as pelicans in flight) in motion using photographic means (and French astronomer Pierre-Jules-Cesar Janssen's "revolving photographic plate" idea).

Marey's photographic gunIn 1882, Marey, often claimed to be the 'inventor of cinema,' constructed a camera (or "photographic gun") that could take multiple (12) photographs per second of moving animals or humans - called chronophotography or serial photography, similar to Muybridge's work on taking multiple exposed images of running horses. [The term shooting a film was possibly derived from Marey's invention.] He was able to record multiple images of a subject's movement on the same camera plate, rather than the individual images Muybridge had produced.

Marey's chronophotographs (multiple exposures on single glass plates and on strips of sensitized paper - celluloid film - that passed automatically through a camera of his own design) were revolutionary. He was soon able to achieve a frame rate of 30 images. Further experimentation was conducted by French-born Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince in 1888. Le Prince used long rolls of paper covered with photographic emulsion for a camera that he devised and patented. Two short fragments survive of his early motion picture film (one of which was titled Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge).

The work of Muybridge, Marey and Le Prince laid the groundwork for the development of motion picture cameras, projectors and transparent celluloid film - hence the development of cinema. American inventor George Eastman, who had first manufactured photographic dry plates in 1878, provided a more stable type of celluloid film with his concurrent developments in 1888 of sensitized paper roll photographic film (instead of glass plates) and a convenient "Kodak" small box camera (a still camera) that used the roll film. He improved upon the paper roll film with another invention in 1889 - perforated celluloid (synthetic plastic material coated with gelatin) roll-film with photographic emulsion.

The Birth of US Cinema: Thomas Edison and William K.L. Dickson

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, Le Prince 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.

Monkeyshines, No. 1 - 1889/1890Although Edison is often credited with the development of early motion picture cameras and projectors, it was Dickson, in November 1890, who devised a crude, motor-powered 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. Edison Studios was formally known as the Edison Manufacturing Company (1894-1911), with innovations due largely to the work of Edison's assistant Dickson in the mid-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.

KinetoscopeIn 1891, Dickson also designed an early version of a movie-picture projector (an optical lantern viewing machine) based on the Zoetrope - called the Kinetoscope. In 1889 or 1890, Dickson filmed his first experimental Kinetoscope trial film, Monkeyshines No. 1, the only surviving film from the cylinder kinetoscope, and apparently the first motion picture ever produced on photographic film in the United States. It featured the movement of laboratory assistant Sacco Albanese, filmed with a system using tiny images that rotated around the cylinder.

Dickson Greeting - 1891The first public demonstration of motion pictures in the US using the Kinetoscope occurred at the Edison Laboratories to the Federation of Women's Clubs on May 20, 1891, with the showing of Dickson Greeting. The very short film's subject in the test footage was William K.L. Dickson himself, bowing, smiling and ceremoniously taking off his hat.

Dickson and Edison built a vertical-feed motion picture camera in the summer of 1892. It used a film strip that was 1 1/2 inches wide. This established the basis for today's standard 35 mm commercial film gauge, occurring in 1897. The 35 mm width with 4 perforations per frame became accepted as the international standard gauge in 1909.

On Saturday, April 14, 1894, a refined version of Edison's Kinetoscope began commercial operation. 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, granted in 1893). The viewing device quickly became popular in carnivals, Kinetoscope parlors, amusement arcades, and sideshows for a number of years.

Black Maria StudioThe world's first film production studio - or "America's first movie studio," the Black Maria, or the Kinetographic Theater (and dubbed "The Doghouse" by Edison himself), was built on the grounds of Edison's laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey. Construction began in December 1892, and it was completed by February 1, 1893, at a cost of $637.67. It was constructed for the purpose of making film strips for the Kinetoscope. It was a black, tar-paper covered building/studio (with a retractable or hinged, flip-up roof to allow sunlight in), and built with a turntable to orient itself throughout the day to follow the natural sunlight.

Blacksmith Scene - 1893Thomas Edison displayed 'his' Kinetoscope projector at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and received patents for his movie camera, the Kinetograph, and his electrically-driven peepshow device - the Kinetoscope. In early May, 1893, Edison also held the world's first public exhibition or demonstration of films at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. The exhibited 34-second film, Blacksmith Scene, was viewed on Dickson's Kinetoscope viewer, and was shot using a Kinetograph at the Black Maria. It showed three people pretending to be blacksmiths.

Fred Ott's Sneeze - 1894The first motion pictures made in the Black Maria were deposited for copyright by Dickson at the Library of Congress in August, 1893. On January 7, 1894, The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (aka Fred Ott's Sneeze) became the first film officially registered for copyright. It was one of the first series of short films made by Dickson for the Kinetoscope viewer in Edison's Black Maria studio with fellow assistant Fred Ott. The short five-second 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 (and medium close-up) of Fred Ott, an Edison employee, sneezing comically for the camera. It was noted as the first medium-closeup.

Carmencita - 1894A short film (about 21 seconds long) titled Carmencita (1894) was directed and produced by Edison's employee William K.L. Dickson. She was filmed March 10-16, 1894 in Edison's Black Maria studio in West Orange, NJ. Spanish dancer Carmencita was the first woman to appear in front of an Edison motion picture camera, and quite possibly the first female to appear in a US motion picture. In some cases, the projection of the scandalous film on a Kinetoscope was forbidden, because it revealed Carmencita's legs and undergarments as she twirled and danced. This was one of the earliest cases of censorship in the moving picture industry.

Most of the first films shot at the Black Maria 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).]

Kinetoscope with Earphones - a KinetophoneDickson Experimental Sound Film - 1894/1895In the early 1890s, Edison and Dickson also devised a prototype sound-film system called the Kinetophonograph or Kinetophone - a precursor of the 1891 Kinetoscope with a cylinder-playing phonograph (and connected earphone tubes) to provide the unsynchronized sound. The projector was connected to the phonograph with a pulley system, but it didn't work very well and was difficult to synchronize. It was formally introduced in 1895, but soon proved to be unsuccessful since competitive, better synchronized devices were also beginning to appear at the time. The first known (and only surviving) film with live-recorded sound made to test the Kinetophone was the 17-second Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-1895).

Kinetoscope Parlors and Films Flourish:

On April 14, 1894, 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. Each film cost 5 cents to view. Patrons paid 25 cents as the admission charge to view films in five kinetoscope machines placed in two rows. The first commercial presentation of a motion picture took place here. The mostly male audience was entertained by a single loop reel depicting clothed female dancers, sparring boxers and body builders, animal acts and everyday scenes. 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.

Soon, peep show Kinetoscope parlors quickly opened across the country, set up in penny arcades, hotel lobbies, and phonograph parlors in major cities across the US. One of the companies formed to market Edison's Kinetoscopes and the films was called the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company. It was owned by Otway Latham, Grey Latham, Samuel Tilden, and Enoch Rector. In the summer of 1894 in downtown New York City (at 83 Nassau St.), it set up a series of large-capacity Kinetoscopes (able to handle up to 150 feet of film), each one showing one, one–minute round of the six round Michael Leonard-Jack Cushing Prize Fight film (produced and filmed at Edison's Black Maria studio). Each viewing cost 10 cents, or 60 cents to see the entire fight. The popular boxing film was the first boxing film produced for commercial exhibition.

Annabelle, the Serpentine Dancer - 1895In June of 1894, pioneering inventor Charles Francis Jenkins became the first person to project a filmed motion picture onto a screen for an audience, in Richmond, Indiana, using his projector termed the Phantoscope. The motion picture was of a vaudeville dancer doing a butterfly dance - the first motion picture with color (tinted frame by frame, by hand). Some of the earliest color hand-tinted films ever publically-released were Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894), Annabelle Sun Dance (1894), and Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895) featuring the dancing of vaudeville-music hall performer Annabelle Whitford (known as Peerless Annabelle) Moore, whose routines were filmed at Edison's studio in New Jersey. Male audiences were enthralled watching these early depictions of a clothed female dancer (sometimes color-tinted) on a Kinetoscope - an early peep-show device for projecting short films.

Young Griffo v. Battling Charles Barnett was the first 'movie' or motion picture in the world to be screened for a paying audience on May 20, 1895, at a storefront at 156 Broadway in NYC. [This was more than seven months before the Lumière brothers showed their film in Paris (see below).] The 8-minute B&W silent film (shown on one continuous reel of film without interruption, using the "Latham Loop" to prevent tearing) was made by Woodville Latham and his sons Otway and Grey. The staged boxing match had been filmed with an Eidoloscope Camera on the roof of Madison Square Garden on May 4, 1895 between Australian boxer Albert Griffiths (Young Griffo) and Charles Barnett. Shortly thereafter, 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).

The Kiss - 1896The Kiss (1896) (aka The May Irwin Kiss) was the first film ever made of a couple kissing in cinematic history. May Irwin and John Rice re-enacted a lingering kiss for Thomas Edison's film camera in this 20-second long short, from their 1895 Broadway stage play-musical The Widow Jones. It became the most popular film produced that year by Edison's film company (it was filmed at Edison's Black Maria studio, in West Orange, NJ), but was also notorious as the first film to be criticized as scandalous and bringing demands for censorship.

The American Mutoscope Company: Dickson's Split From Edison

Disgruntled and a disenchanted inventor, William K.L. Dickson left Edison to form his own company in 1895, called the American Mutoscope Company (see more further below), the first and the oldest movie company in America. A nickelodeon film producer who had been working with Thomas Edison for a number of years, Dickson left following a disagreement. Three others joined Dickson, inventors Herman Casler and Henry Marvin, and an investor named Elias Koopman. The company was set up at 841 Broadway, in New York - its sole focus was to produce and distribute moving pictures. The business was moved to Canastota, NY. Superior alternatives to the Kinetoscope were the company's invention of the Mutoscope - a hand-cranked viewing device utilizing bromide prints or illustrated cards in a 'flick-book' principle, and the Biograph projector, released in the summer of 1896 - a projector using large-format, wide-gauge 68 mm film (different from Edison's 35mm). The Biograph soon became the chief US competitor to Edison's Kinetoscope and Vitascope. [Note: The American Mutoscope Company eventually became the Biograph Company.] [By the 1897 patent date of the Kinetoscope, 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.]

Film History of the Pre-1920s
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

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