The Beginnings of Motion Picture

The first tentative motion picture cameras and projectors were created in the late 1880s by the Edison Manufacturing Company, devised using previous ideas from other photo technology innovators like Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey, Louise Aime Augustin Le Prince and George Eastman.

Although American inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) is often credited with this breakthrough in technology, much of the key progress was made by Edison’s British assistant, William Kennedy Lauri Dickson (1860-1935). By 1890, Dickson has designed a “Kinetograph,” a crude, motion-picture camera that ran on a motor; and by 1891 he’d created the “Kinetoscope,” an early movie picture projector. His trial film—the first film shot in America—was Monkeyshines No. 1, a simple, experimental 30-second film featuring the movement of a laboratory assistant, as what appears to be a shifting white silhouette on a black background.


The Beginnings of Film in France

The Lumiere brothers, Louis and Auguste, started creating their own filmed material in France following work produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company. They built the Cinematograph, a more advanced filming device that allowed for multiple viewers to watch the film on a large screen; and perhaps most notably, their film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) scared an audience that expected a train to burst from the screen.

Another Frenchman, Georges Melies, developed his own camera (a type of Kinetograph) and set up the first European film studio in 1897—one that made use of artificial lighting and retractable blinds. Melies was unique in his use of stop-action, fading and trick-photography (as special effects); his setup of narrative scenes and character development; and his themes of horror, science fiction, and fairy tale. His 1902 14-minute film A Trip to the Moon was his most popular work, presenting the iconic image of a rocket ship landing in the eye of “the man on the moon.”

The Kinetographic Theatre

From 1892-1893, Dickson and Edison produced a vertical-feed motion picture camera (requiring a 1 ½ inch wide film strip); their Kinetoscope began commercial use as a single customer “peepshow” box-like viewing device; and Edison’s company established the Black Maria, a Kinetographic Theatre. The production of Carmencita in 1894 introduced censorship to film, as the scandalous motion picture exposed the legs and undergarments of a dancing woman and was consequently banned in some cases.

Early Kinetoscope parlors—the first of which was opened by the Holland Brothers in New York in 1894—featured short, everyday scenes that people payed five cents to view, such as a dance, a dog chase, or a train approaching. 1896 brought another controversial Edison film, a 20-second short titled The Kiss. This was the first film to feature a couple kissing, and while it sparked controversy it was simultaneously Edison’s most popular film that year.

Some early landmark movies (1890s-1920):

  • 1899: Matches – 30 sec stop-motion, 1st use of animation, encourage audience to send matches to British troops
  • 1902: A Trip to the Moon (14 min) – first science fiction film, innovative use of special effects
  • 1903: The Great Train Robbery (10 min) – multiple camera positions, acceleration editing, introduction of western genre
  • 1914-1918: Claws of the Hun, The Kaiser’s Finish – patriotism propaganda during WWI
  • 1915: Birth of a Nation (3 hour) – very long, extravagant film about the Civil War; very racist

Egyptian Papyrus

In 3,000 BCE, the Egyptians create papyrus, a smudge resistant, portable writing surface. Some of the oldest papyri yet discovered (dated 2600 BCE) chronicles the building of the Great Pyramid—the oldest and largest of the three pyramids of Giza—during the reign of Khufu. Scrolls were used for communication and event journaling as they were easily portable.