- Historic Sites
The Moving Image
Three Americans created the art of the motion picture, and made it the universal language of the twentieth century
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
The older arts, all seven of them—architecture, dance, drama, literature, music, painting, and sculpture—had their origins in the Mediterranean basin several thousands of years ago. The only new art, and the most universal, was born near the mouth of the Hudson River, and within the memory of living men. Three American geniuses—Thomas Alva Edison, Edwin Stanton Porter, and David Wark Griffith—individually and with others, created here a new means of depicting life.
This is the Moving Image, the eighth art, and today it is seen in living rooms, theaters, drive-ins, museums, classrooms. It is colored and black-and-white, wide and narrow, and often accompanied by voices, sounds, or music. It is free, subsidized, and charged for, preserved on celluloid and tape, transported in cans, over cables, through the air. It is projected on screens, shot from tubes, sometimes instantaneous, and always alive. It is the art of the twentieth century, and in the verbal confusion of our times it is also called cinema, film, motion picture, talkie, and television.
It is no archaeological accident that the oldest record of man’s creative impulse (25,000 B.C. in the Pyrenees) is his effort to capture motion. The Cro-Magnon artist huntsmen in their Lascaux cave paintings sought to hold life in motion by giving their wild bison the illusion of movement. The more modern art of literature, according to William Faulkner, “is really on its way back to the picture writing in the Neanderthal cave.”
The first man to relate photography to the illusion of motion was an American, Coleman Sellers, a descendant of that notable family of artists and tinkerers, the Peales. In 1860 Colonel Sellers, a mechanical engineer in Philadelphia, posed his sons in six photographs, showing them in the process of pounding a nail into a box—a parental impulse that has subsequently enriched the Eastman Kodak Company. Sellers mounted the photographs on the blades of a revolving paddle wheel, thus revealing his sons through a fixed peephole, in continuous, if jerky, motion.
Previously, a variety of Europeans—English, Belgian, Austrian—had experimented with hand-drawn applications of the theory that Peter Mark Roget (the Thesaurus man) had presented in a paper before the Royal Society in 1824. In a sense, no picture ever moves. All moving images are series of still pictures, flashed before the eyes at a speed faster than the eye can catch. This visual phenomenon (sixteen frames to the second for silent pictures, twenty-four for sound, thirty in television) permits a trick on the optic nerve, giving the illusion of constant motion. This trick Roget called “the persistence of vision.”
The crucial question was how to photograph motion.
A wager of $25,000 by a California railway magnate and sportsman, Leland Stanford, started motion photography on its way. A battery of twenty-four cameras was set up at the Stanford stock farm in Palo Alto, to prove that a horse had all four feet off the ground at a given moment. The horse’s hoofs were to trip a wire—an electrical device worked better—that clicked each camera. The photographer in charge, the eccentric but accomplished Edweard Muybridge, later used the system to record the first strip tease, the first fat lady dance, the first muscle man exercising, all printed in a fascinating book, Animal Locomotion.
In February, 1886, Muybridge had the brilliant idea of interesting the most practical and prolific inventor of the time, Thomas Alva Edison, in motion photography. Then thirty-nine years old, Edison had already improved the telegraph, invented the carbon telephone transmitter (and sold it to Bell), and introduced the improvements that made possible the commercial production of the incandescent lamp.
About the time of Muybridge’s visit, Edison had developed a motor-driven phonograph and cylindrical wax records, both of which were instantly popular. His original model cost him eighteen dollars; its cylinder was covered with tin foil and turned by a hand crank. But he felt that the voices, coming from a tin horn, still seemed a bit ghostly. Customers might like the sound better if they could see the talkers and singers; the camera could be a sales-booster for his phonograph.
Among his talents, Edison had a genius for hiring imaginative assistants. In 1888 they produced a cylinder that revolved behind a peephole, its figures in a photographic groove scarcely half an inch high. “Everything should come out of one hole,” Edison had told his staff, and he was right—but wrong in trying to imitate his phonographic cylinder. Not until George Eastman of Rochester, New York, began in August, 1889, to manufacture a photographic emulsion on a nitro-cellulose base did Edison have a supple and strong recorder of motion. For $2.50 he purchased a strip of film fifty feet long—an unprecedented length. “That’s it!” cried the Wizard of Orange on September second, in the famous Room Five in the new West Orange plant. “We’ve got it! Now work like hell!”
Edison had already invented the rapid-fire shutter. It was his assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, however, who solved the mechanical problem of moving “roller photography” through the camera by punching holes along the edges of the celluloid so that a sprocket could synchronize each frame with the lens shutter. The first films imitated books, in that the strips ran horizontally through the camera.