ONE SPRING DAY in 1894, Thomas Edison unveiled a remarkable moving picture machine called the Kinetoscope in a Manhattan parlor. Some 500 people lined up to drop quarters into what was the Oculus Rift of its day—a look into something truly transformative.
The Kinetoscope was little more than a wood cabinet containing a strip of film and a blinking bulb, and a far cry from the truly immersive 1080p resolution of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Nevertheless, it was the first popular means of viewing motion pictures, marking the advent of a new form of media.
Edison first showed the Kinetoscope at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9, 1893. It was a relatively simple machine; a 46-frame strip of film wound through a series of sprockets and viewed through a peephole. It was an adaptation of the Kinetograph, which took pictures. The simple addition of a flickering lightbulb (Edison brand, of course) behind the film turned it into a playback machine.
Edison hoped to do for pictures what the phonograph did for sound (the Kinetophone, developed later, combined the two technologies). His initial inspiration came largely from Edward Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope, a tilt-a-whirl-style disc containing painted reproductions of photos, mostly of animals, taken by a row of 24 plate cameras. When spun, the individual frames blurred into animated motions.
Various approaches to chronophotography had been devised since the 1860s, but a stroke of genius by George Eastman (as in Eastman-Kodak) in 1889 to apply photo emulsion to nitrocellulose film made the Edison device possible. The flexible, sensitive film allowed more film to be wound through the Kinteograph, making better use of the enclosures’ space and achieving real-time frame rates.
Most of the credit for the device’s design goes to William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, an assistant to Edison and an accomplished photographer. Among Dickson’s many contributions is inventing the 35mm film format. He appears in one of the earliest examples of kinetography, called Dickson’s Greeting.
Not content to merely create the means of creating and presenting motion pictures, Edison set out to produce and sell them, too. He had the first movie studio — the Black Maria — built in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1893. It stood on a rotating gimbal to take advantage of changing daylight conditions. The Edison Manufacturing Company would produce some 1,200 motion pictures, including 54 feature length films.
“Actualities,” slice-of-life reels providing a glimpse of celebrities, landscapes and the like, were the first popular motion pictures. Titles like Roosters, Blacksmiths and Horse Shoeing were filmed at Black Maria. Visitors to the parlor at 1155 Broadway in Manhattan paid 25 cents–almost $7 in today’s money–to view a series of five reels. Disasters were another common subject; the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, and the San Francisco quake of 1906 all found their way behind the Kinetoscope peepholes.
Edison, an entrepreneur as much as an inventor, patented the 35mm, four-sprocket-per-frame film format Dickson developed for the Kinetoscope. This forced his chief competitor, American Mutoscope & Biograph, to use the much bulkier 68mm format on a less reliable friction-based feeder. The patent didn’t last beyond 1902, when a court declared it invalid because filmmakers in Europe (where Edison couldn’t file patents) already were using the format. Motion pictures couldn’t be patented until 1912, so paper contact prints—sometimes of entire films, printed frame-by-frame—were submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office. Other companies just submitted illustrations.
By 1902, demand for actualities gave way to narrative films and newsreels. Edison tried steering his production company toward longer narratives, but the results paled next to the work of other filmmakers. Meanwhile projection methods of film playback grew increasingly prevalent, and Edison’s company stopped making movies in 1918.
Still, the contributions Edison made with the Kinetoscope and the motion pictures he produced for it cannot be overstated—even if his other innovations in film and filmmaking led to some of the first advertisements and product placement in films. With a speckled legacy that includes positives like lightbulbs and negatives like the forced adoption of an inferior electrical current format, we can score this one on the plus side.
You can experience the timeline history of movies and their evolution, from working kinetoscopes and zoetropes to the special effects at the Museum of the Moving Image.
By Doug Bierend/Wired