The motion in motion pictures is created by an optical illusion. What is recorded by the camera and subsequently projected on the screen is actually a series of still images that the human brain interprets as continuous movement due to the perceptual features known as persistence of vision and the phi phenomenon. With persistence of vision, images are retained by the brain for a fraction of a second longer than they remain in the field of vision. In a projected film, still images alternate with dark spaces, but persistence of vision allows viewers to perceive motion rather than flickering images. Similarly, the phi phenomenon, or stroboscopic effect, creates an appearance of motion when like stimuli are shown close to each other and in quick succession (it is the phi phenomenon that makes individual spokes on a spinning bicycle wheel look like a solid form). These characteristics of perception are essential to viewing motion pictures.

Numerous optical devices and toys developed in the nineteenth century took advantage of these perceptual phenomena to create the illusion of motion. The Thaumatrope, developed in 1825 by Dr. John Ayrton Paris (1785–1856), was a small disk with images printed on either side. When the disk was spun the images appeared to blend together into one. Other devices, such as the Phenakistiscope (1832) and the Zoetrope (1834), used a series of drawings that appeared to be in motion when spun quickly and viewed through small slits in the apparatus. By mid-century photographs were used in these toys, but because of the lengthy exposure times required, the actions had to be staged and each movement photographed individually. With the development of series photography by Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) in 1877, events could, for the first time, be captured on film spontaneously as they happened.

Eadweard Muybridge's work on series photography grew out of a $25,000 bet. In 1872 a businessman and former governor of California, Leland Stanford, hired Muybridge, an English photographer and inventor, to show that at some point galloping horses lifted all four hooves off the ground. Muybridge proved this in 1877 when he set up a series of cameras along a Sacramento racetrack and attached the cameras' shutters to wires that were tripped by the horse as it passed by. The result of this experiment was a series of images of continuous motion broken down into individual photographic units. However, before this process could be applied toward motion picture photography, Muybridge's multiple cameras needed to be condensed into a single camera. This was accomplished by French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), whose 1882 invention, the chronophotographic gun, could shoot pictures at a rate of twelve images per second. The chronophotographic gun originally used a circular, rotating glass plate on which the images were imprinted, but Marey soon began using paper roll film, which allowed for more exposures at a faster rate. Like Muybridge, Marey was primarily interested in series photography for the purpose of studying motion, and not in the tremendous entertainment potential of motion pictures.

By the late 1880s numerous scientists and inventors from around the world were working to develop a camera that could record motion. In 1891 American inventor Thomas A. Edison (1847–1931) applied for a patent for a motion picture system developed primarily by his laboratory assistant, William Kennedy Laurie (W. K. L.) Dickson (1860–1935). The system featured a camera called the Kinetograph (from the Greek for "motion recorder") and a viewer called the Kinetoscope (from the Greek for "motion viewer"). The Kinetograph used flexible celluloid film that had been introduced to the market in 1889 by American businessman and entrepreneur George Eastman (1854–1932). Dickson and Edison included an intermittent mechanism in the camera so that each frame would stop before the lens long enough for the shutter to open and expose the film, and perforations were added to the filmstrip to ensure that the film would be advanced by regular intervals. The intermittent, or stop-motion, device and the perforations in the filmstrip were essential components of the motion picture camera, because without the ability to stop the film the images would be blurred. An intermittent device was first used by Marey in 1888, and stop-motion mechanisms ultimately became a standard element in both cameras and projectors. The perforations in the film made it possible for a clawed gear to hook on to the film and pull it in front of the lens, one frame at a time, ensuring synchronization of the filmstrip and shutter. This technology is still used in modern motion picture cameras.

At first, Edison was not interested in moving pictures as an entertainment form in their own right. Instead, his intention was to use the Kinetograph to provide images to accompany his popular phonograph, although his efforts to synchronize sound and image on the two machines were ultimately unsuccessful. Edison felt that it would be more profitable to show his movies on individual viewing machines rather than projecting them before an audience, and with this in mind, he introduced the Kinetoscope, a machine that allowed individuals to watch short films of about fifty feet (approximately thirty seconds). Kinetoscope parlors, where people could pay around twenty-five cents to view these short films or listen to recorded sound on individual phonographs, began appearing around the country in 1894.

While Edison's laboratories were perfecting the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope, a pair of French brothers, Auguste Lumière (1862–1954) and Louis Lumière (1864–1948), were developing an apparatus that could be used as a camera, printer, and projector. This machine, called the Cinématographe, was completed in 1895. The Lumières' machine was technologically similar to Edison's Kinetograph in its use of intermittent motion and perforated film. The primary difference between the two machines was that along with the ability to record images, the Cinématographe could also print and project the film. Also, the Cinématographe was hand-cranked and lightweight, making it possible for the Lumières to take their camera on location and film short documentaries, or actualités , involving scenes from everyday life. Some of the popular actualités from 1895 include La Sortie des ouvriers de l'usine Lumière ( Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory ), L'Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat ( Arrival of a Train ), Le Déjeuner de bébé ( Feeding the Baby ), and L'Arroseur arrosé ( The Sprinkler Sprinkled ). By contrast, the Kinetograph weighed several hundred pounds due to Edison's insistence that it run on electricity, necessitating a heavy battery. Because of this, Edison's early films were shot entirely in his studio, and generally consisted of staged scenes involving dancers, acrobats, strongmen, and popular actors and vaudevillians of the day. Also unlike Edison's films, which were meant to be viewed individually on Kinetoscopes, the films created on the Cinématographe were projected on a screen in front of an audience. On 28 December 1895 the Lumière brothers gave an exhibition of their actualités at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, charging one franc admission; this was the first commercial exhibition of films projected for an audience. Edison responded to the success of the Cinématographe and other portable cameras in 1896, when he developed a

b. Milan, Ohio, 11 February 1847, d. 18 October 1931

In his early years Thomas Edison worked as a telegraph operator, and his first inventions were related to electrical telegraphy. By the time he introduced his motion picture camera, the Kinetograph, and viewer, the Kinetoscope, to the public in 1894, he had already achieved nearly mythic status. Several of his inventions, including the lightbulb (1879) and the phonograph (1877), were immensely successful and had firmly established him as the foremost American inventor of his time. The public, therefore, was more than willing to accept that Edison was the sole inventor of the new medium of motion pictures, and Edison himself gladly accepted the credit. Today there exists a great deal of debate over Edison's role in the invention of motion pictures, with some arguing that he was the primary creative force and others claiming that his assistants, particularly W. K. L. Dickson, did most of the work, and that Edison borrowed or even stole their ideas and efforts. The truth most likely lies somewhere in between.

Edison was initially interested in motion pictures as a complement to his phonograph. His efforts to combine moving images with synchronous sound were soon abandoned as impractical, but in the meantime Kinetoscope parlors began springing up around the country, featuring short films made in Edison's "Black Maria" studio. Films made at the Black Maria showcased performances by vaudevillians, dancers, acrobats and strongmen, as well as boxing matches and cockfights. Annie Oakley performed at the Black Maria with members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and one of the most popular films of the day, The Kiss (1896), was made at the studio.

Because Edison's profits were primarily derived from the sale of the Kinetoscope machines, he was not interested in projecting films; however, the success of projected film exhibitions in Europe drove him to reconsider his stance, and in April 1896 Edison presented his first commercial exhibition of projected motion pictures using a projector called the Vitascope. After its introduction films, and not the machines, became his company's primary source of profit. Despite increasing concentration on filmmaking, however, Edison continued to develop new technologies. In the early 1910s, he subsidized the work of a number of inventors who were attempting to create color film, a venture that ultimately failed, as did several others. Although Edison's motion picture camera and projector were developed at the same time and used similar technology as numerous other cameras and projectors, Edison aggressively protected his patents on these devices. His Motion Picture Patents Company, founded in 1908, effectively suppressed competition until 1915, when it was found guilty of violating anti-trust laws. In 1918 Edison retired from the motion picture industry that he had helped to create.


Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894 (Fred Ott's Sneeze) (1894), Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), The Kiss (1896), Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory (1897), Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901), Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), Life of an American Fireman (1903), The Great Train Robbery (1903), Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), What Happened to Jane? (1912)


Dickson, W. K. L, and Antonia Dickson. History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope and Kinetophonograph . New York: Arno Press, 1970. Originally published in 1895.

Hendricks, Gordon. The Edison Motion Picture Myth . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961.

Israel, Paul. Edison: A Life of Invention . New York: Wiley, 1998.

Musser, Charles. Thomas A. Edison and His Kinetographic Motion Pictures . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Spehr, Paul C. "Some Still Fragments of a Moving Past: Edison Films in the Library of Congress." The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 32, no. 1 (January 1975): 33–50.

Kristen Anderson Wagner

Thomas Alva Edison.

lightweight camera to film documentaries in New York City. That same year, he created a projecting version of his Kinetoscope, called the Vitascope.

Many features of modern motion picture cameras were present in the Kinetograph, the Cinématographe, and other early cameras. Both the Edison and Lumière cameras used 35mm film, which remains the industry standard. The Cinématographe, and eventually the Kinetograph as well, ran at a rate of sixteen frames per second, a rate that was used throughout the silent era. Other elements of the camera, such as the use of a flexible and transparent film base, an intermittent claw mechanism to move the film forward and stop on each frame, perforated film, and a shutter to block light in between frames were all developed by early motion picture camera pioneers.

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