Beginning in the 1830s and continuing throughout the century, series photography generated early interest in the possibilities of motion pictures. Inventors and entrepreneurs quickly recognized the entertainment value of simulating the movement of photographs, such that by the middle of the nineteenth century a variety of peephole toys and coin machines were appearing in arcade parlors throughout the United States and Europe. These pre-cinematic mechanisms were crucial in the technological leap from still photography to motion pictures projected on big screens for paying audiences. One of the earliest toys was the Zoetrope, a handheld spinning wheel with a series of photographs on the inside, visible to the viewer by thin slits along the top. The Mutoscope, a coin machine found in arcades, enabled viewers to see a series of photo cards flip by at the turn of a crank.
These early peephole toys and experiments with sequence photography indicate that the premise of the movies—that is, a sequential series of pictures on cards or film passed by the eye fast enough to suggest continuous movement—was well in place before the first motion pictures were made and projected onto a screen. Three critical components, however, were missing: light-sensitive and fast film rolls that could travel through a camera and capture the action sequentially on frames; a camera that would record this action; and a projector that could run the film at such a pace and with enough light to throw the images, in seeming motion, onto a large screen.
In 1882 Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), a French physiologist, invented the "chronophotographic gun" to record animal locomotion. The camera initially captured images on glass plates, but Marey soon switched to an easier, more manipulable format, paper film, thus introducing the film strip to cinematography and setting the stage for further developments. Indeed, only a few years later, in 1887, an Episcopalian minister from New Jersey, Hannibal Goodwin (1822–1900), developed the first celluloid roll film as a base for light-sensitive emulsions. Goodwin's success with celluloid film rolls was particularly significant because it made possible motion picture cameras and projection. George Eastman (1854–1932) soon thereafter adapted Goodwin's roll film, patented it, and made it the industry standard by 1890. Eastman Kodak issued this same basic stock, in rolls of two hundred feet, all the while making technical innovations to improve its quality. Eastman and his laboratories made it the most dependable film stock, and by 1910 studios and filmmakers from around the world were using it.
Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931), inventor and entrepreneur, was in many ways an unlikely but important figure in the history of movie technology. Long before the first talkies, Edison was arguably the first to envision motion pictures as a marriage of image and sound. Before his company patented motion picture cameras—among other technologies vital to producing and projecting movies—he invented the phonograph, for which he always dreamed of producing visual accompaniment. Toward this end, he sought to invent a camera that would shoot a series of images onto a strip of film that, when projected at a certain speed, would convey a continuous sequence resembling live action. In 1883 he hired the young William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860–1935), who would greatly aid him in this quest. By 1895, Dickson ran Edison's West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory. After working on this project for a number of years, Dickson invented the first motion picture camera in 1891.
Borrowing from several earlier mechanisms, including time watch engineering and Marey's chronophotographic gun, Dickson came up with an instrument called the Kinetograph. What distinguished this new camera from other devices of the same period were two crucial additions, both of which remained defining attributes of motion picture cameras and projection throughout the twentieth century. First, it made use of a stop-motion device to regulate the intermittent motion of the film strip through the camera at various rates of frames per second (typically, 16 fps during the silent era and 24 fps for talking pictures). This allowed for the unexposed film strip to pause for a fraction of a second, during which time the shutter briefly opened long enough to sufficiently expose the film to a beam of light. Second, Dickson added sprocket holes on one side of the celluloid film strip, which could then be pulled through the machine by teethed gears. As Dickson carefully notes in his History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope, and Kineto-Phonograph , originally published in 1895, these perforations allowed for the locking device to keep the film in place for nine-tenths of a second, as the shutter opens and admits a beam of light long enough to expose the film.
The Kinetograph shot short films in 50-foot installments (typically less than 30 seconds), which could then be viewed in the Kinetoscope, a battery-powered coin machine—one of the last of its kind before motion picture exhibition became geared toward collective audiences—also designed by Edison's company. Unlike later projectors, this one operated at over 40 frames per second, nearly three times faster than what would become the standard rate. Soon entire parlor halls were filled with Kinetoscopes, drawing in customers who individually watched a number of short movies. Using the Kinetograph, Dickson shot thousands of short films in what was the first motion-picture studio, "the Black Maria," a barnlike structure with a sliding roof that allowed sunlight to enter and illuminate the subjects being shot. Since the camera was large and immobile, the "action" needed to be brought before it. The shorts were thus one-shot, one-scene "movies."
In spite of its unwieldy size and relatively primitive mechanics, the Kinetograph influenced nearly every motion picture camera made since, but especially those that followed in the decade after. Like their predecessor, these cameras were typically made of wood, sat on a box or tripod, had a hand crank for shooting and projecting, and came with sprockets that drove the film through the machine. In Europe several important early filmmakers and inventors adapted the Kinetograph to fit their own needs, which included more versatile, mobile filmmaking as well as projection. The French Lumière brothers, Auguste (1862–1954) and Louis (1864–1948), invented the Cinématographe in 1895, a remarkable machine that was camera, printer, and projector all in one device. The Lumières became famous for shooting their popular actualités , short, single-shot films of locations and scenarios, such as oncoming trains, people kissing, and distant lands. Unlike the Kinetograph, the Cinématographe was light and more easily transportable, able to capture city scenes and "exotic" locales at a time when few were able to travel the world.
With the rapid growth of camera technology came attendant developments in projection. Many early cameras were also used as projectors, whereby an arc-light source would be attached to the back, which could be opened for projection purposes. Arc lights were a popular and powerful source of illumination for early theater and photographic portraiture, and were later used for motion picture production at a time when less sensitive film stocks required powerful lighting for full exposure. As early as 1888, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince (1842–c.1890), working in England, rivaled Dickson and his Kinetograph by patenting a motion picture camera-projector that used perforated film and intermittent stop-go motion. (Prince might have become more than a footnote in the early history of motion pictures had he and his machinery not disappeared without a trace in 1890.)
Several problems with early projection engineering needed solving, however. First, there was the matter of precisely regulating the film roll's intermittent but consistent movement through the machine, such that each frame would travel between the projection lamp and the open shutter for the same duration and at the correct pace for proper projection. German film pioneer Oskar Messter (1866–1943) developed the Maltese-cross system—still used today in most projectors—to ensure regular "stop-and-go" motion (Cook, p. 9). This gear, in the shape of a Maltese cross, sits atop the sprocket wheel that pulls the film through the projector. A pin on the edge of the wheel briefly locks with the gear, such that the film is momentarily (and repeatedly) paused and then released.
The second predicament with early projection was figuring out a method to prevent the film from tearing under the pressure of hundreds of feet of film spinning and intermittently tugging at the single strip between the reels (this pressure builds to a critical mass typically when the film is longer than 100 feet, equivalent to over a minute in duration). The solution came in 1896 with the invention of the Latham loop, an extra loop in the film's path through the projector that absorbed the tension and facilitated the showing of longer films. Although filmmakers may not have taken advantage of this new-found possibility until 1899, when longer films were introduced, exhibitors and studios did so by splicing shorter films together to make longer programs. In 1889 Edison's company and others around the world were taking patents out on projectors, and less than a decade later, on 23 April 1896, New York City was home to the first public projection of a motion picture in the United States. Both European and American audiences were quick to embrace the new entertainment, flocking to theaters and then reading about it the next day in their local newspapers.
There were many key players behind the initial technological developments of motion pictures. Yet few of these inventors were collaborating or even envisioning a common goal; even fewer foresaw the potential for movies to tell stories, create international celebrities, and entertain large audiences collectively gathered before one large screen. Eventually, however, technological advancements coalesced to match the period's fascination with mechanized movement. Together they soon offered up the possibility of the movies as an entertainment form and a highly profitable industry.