The Moving Image


On October 6, 1889, when Edison and his wife returned from the International Exposition in Paris, Dickson made one of the most dramatic demonstrations in the history of invention. He appeared on a screen, he bowed, his mouth moved, he talked and he was heard! “Good morning, Mr. Edison,” said Dickson. “Glad to see you back. I hope you are satisfied with the Kinetophonograph [Dickson’s name for the camera].”

Though movies and talkies had a joint debut that day, Edison decided the twins should grow separately. His phonograph business had become immensely lucrative. Metropolitan Opera stars, singers and musicians of international fame, and Broadway monologuists gladly ferried the Hudson to immortalize their voices and music on the top door of Edison’s barnlike, heavily-draped studio. He was in no hurry to exploit his camera and projector, which had already cost $24,118.04, a huge sum to him. He waited almost two years before he applied for a patent, and then refused to spend an additional $150 for an international copyright, “ft’s not worth it,” he said. They were the most expensive four words he ever uttered.

It was not until a southern promoter of the phonograph—Thomas R. Lombard of Cornelia, Georgia—wandered into the Orange works and saw the idle and dusty Kinetoscope machine that Edison’s interest revived. Lombard sought to purchase one, though there were as yet no films for it, to display at the forthcoming Columbian Exposition in Chicago; whereupon Edison decided to go into production of peephole machines and movies, in the hope of recouping his lost investment. He had already decided against Dickson’s screen, which he remembered as five feet square (Dickson in later years thought it was eight by ten feet), because it was too-large for profitable exploitation and was not yet perfected. His peepshow box, the Kinetoscope, ran fifty-foot films over a series of small rollers, driven by a battery-impelled motor. One spectator at a time watched through a viewing lens.

Since the first motion-picture camera resembled an upright piano and weighed nearly a ton, the subjects that could be photographed were rather limited. But Edison was a bit of an impresario. Recalling his success with vocal and instrumental performers from Manhattan, he summoned jugglers, acrobats, wrestlers, prize fighters, dancers. Sandow the Strong Man was among the first to be photographed. Annie Oakley shot clay pigeons, Buffalo Bill fired his rifle, Sioux Indians performed their Ghost Dance.

To increase production, Edison designed and built a tiny studio—it was completed in February, 1893—on his back lot behind the laboratory. It cost $637.67 (he kept the books!). An ugly, oblong box covered with tar paper and nicknamed the “Black Maria” after the police wagons of the day, it could be revolved on tracks to keep its stage in sunlight. A replica is now exhibited on the front grounds in West Orange.

The first public demonstration of motion pictures (though only for one person at a time and only as a novelty) took place on April 14, 1894, in a penny arcade at 1155 Broadway in New York City. Broadway had its first movies, and their commercial history—with all its chicanery and allure—began.

The first motion-picture re-enactment of a historical event, The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, by William Heise, an Edison employee, was shot in August, 1895. More important, it also used the first trick shot. (The shot—a single camera operation covering an action, idea, or emotion—is the fundamental unit of this new language.) In the first shot of The Execution a young actress in a long black dress stands before the chopping block. She kneels, places her head on the block. The executioner raises the axe over his head, and swings. The shot ends. The second shot discloses the axe continuing its swing and chopping off the head of a sawdust dummy. End of shot. End of first classic.

By 1895, owners of penny arcades and exhibitions were demanding a machine similar to Henry Renno Heyl’s version of the magic lantern, which had packed 1,600 customers into Philadelphia’s Academy of Music a quarter of a century earlier. Edison was reluctant to return to the screen, in view of the popularity of his peep-show boxes. The steady flow of pennies from the arcades was convincing evidence for him. “The throwing of the pictures on a screen was the very first thing I did with the Kinetoscope,” he told the New York Sun, April 22, 1895, on the occasion of a demonstration by Woodville Latham, who had infringed his patent. “I didn’t think much of that, because the pictures were crude, and there seemed to me to be no commercial value in that feature of the machine.”