The cinema's prehistory is frequently narrated though the enumeration of various technologies whose invention slowly but surely led to moving pictures. Indeed, the capacity to produce and project moving pictures did depend on notable inventions such as photography, flexible roll film, intermittent mechanisms for projectors, and forms of artificial illumination such as lime-light and electric light. However, it is important to keep in mind that the cinema itself was rarely, if ever, the goal of the scientists, experimenters, entertainers, and photographers who developed the optical toys and screen entertainment that ultimately made moving pictures mechanically feasible. They had other objectives in mind—such as proving a scientific hypothesis about human vision and locomotion or expanding on the aesthetic and commercial possibilities of painting and photography. Moreover, the history of cinema must take into account certain social, cultural, and political changes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which enabled the success of commercialized leisure, such as magic lantern shows, panoramas, and, ultimately, the cinema.

During the Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Europe, experimentation in optics and physics led to the development of the scientific and mechanical principles on which many forms of nineteenth-century visual culture are based. In turn, the French and American Revolutions and the decreasing importance of the church and monarchy in everyday life created new opportunities to develop secular culture, democracy, and the bourgeois and middle classes. The spread of popular education in the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly in the United States, fostered literacy and intellectual curiosity among the working and middle classes, creating a market for dime novels, comic books, and philosophical toys, which were devices meant to demonstrate a scientific principle while providing amusement, such as the thaumatrope and the phenakistoscope. The rise of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century caused a massive shift in populations from the country to urban centers in Europe, England, and the United States, creating a market for cheap, urban forms of mass entertainment for office and factory workers who sought respite from their daily toils and who had a modicum of leisure time and disposable income available for leisure activities. Moreover, industrialization demanded technological innovations—such as the railway, steamship, telegraph, telephone, and electric power—to help accelerate the efficient production and circulation of natural resources, finished products, and workers to and through urban centers. Such inventions cannot be separated from the technologies used in new urban forms of entertainment. For example, Thomas Edison (1847–1931) first conceived of the phonograph as an aide to office workers, while transportation technologies were very quickly converted to the purposes of leisure: not only did the streetcar shuttle thousands to amusement parks, it also provided the technological basis for the roller coaster. These changes led to an explosion in urban commercial entertainment. The history of the various forms of visual culture and entertainment that preceded the cinema developed from this broader social, political, and economic context, which might broadly be identified as "technological modernity."

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