- 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
However, the handwriting (and the screen) was on the wall. Others were experimenting with projection machines, and it was Thomas Armat of Washington who produced the mechanism that made possible the modern projector. Dickson had used the red-cross gear of the Swiss watchmakers to turn the sprockets and the film in intermittent motion, permitting each successive image an instant of rest and illumination. Armat chose the Maltese cross, whose flared ends would permit a steadier and clearer flow of image frames. He ordered a “mutilated” gear from the Boston Gear Works, in Boston, Massachusetts, and it worked beautifully, but with a roar. On the night of April 23, 1896, Armat’s Vitascope, acquired by Edison, had its Broadway debut at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, approximately on the spot where R. H. Macy today sells lingerie. Thomas Alva Edison was an honored guest in a box; Armat was discreetly quiet in the noisy projection booth.
The distinguished theatrical magnate Charles Frohman was in the audience. “That settles scenery!” he cried to a reporter. “Painted trees that do not move, waves that get up a few feet and stay there, everything in scenery we simulate on our stages will have to go. Now that art can make us believe that we see actual, living nature, the dead things of the stage must go.” The New York Herald reporter was eloquently matter-of fact: “Mr. Edison calls his latest invention the Vitascope which he says means a machine showing life, and that is exactly what the new apparatus does.”
Thus the Moving Image was born. What the inventors Edison, Dickson, and Armat did was nothing less than create a new and universal language, a way of recording people, places, and things in motion. To appreciate how this language developed into an art, it is essential to understand its unique characteristics, the three basic types of visual motion, as separate and interrelated as words, phrases, sentences.
For a start we might think of recorded movement as the nouns and pronouns of the new language. A face smiles, a wind moves the trees, a fire engine races up the street. In Edison’s time, recorded movement was mainly vaudeville, news, staged scenes—as it still is today. Not until Edwin Stanton Porter, an employee of Edison, added his own contribution did the Moving image reveal its full potential.
Porter added mounted movement, or editing, which might be thought of as the verbs of the visual language. He took the novelties of his European contemporaries—the close-up shot, the panoramic shot, the tracking shot, the multiple sets, the inserted and edited shots, the chase—and lifted them to the level of cinematic drama. Porter, more than anyone, translated the novelty of the Kinetoscope into the craft of the motion picture. He remains, unfortunately, its unsung genius; his first masterpiece is not even mentioned in the latest history of the art.
Edwin Stanton Porter was born in 1870 in the small Pennsylvania town of Connellsville on the Youghiogheny River. He had a quiet face, sad eyes, and sandy, drooping mustaches. One brother, Harry, became a gold miner in California; two other brothers and an unmarried sister settled in New York City. Edwin joined the Navy. On his discharge, he remembered two Connellsville men who had invested in the Vitascope with high hopes of making a fortune, it was a time when almost everybody seemed to be making, or talking about making, fortunes. Porter thought of trying his luck with the new horseless carriages. Instead, in New York that spring of 1896, he walked into 43 West Twenty-eighth Street, in the area around Broadway, which was fast becoming the world’s motion picture center. He called on Raff and Gammon, Edison’s agents for the Vitascope, and was put to work operating projectors.
The humid air around Broadway that summer was hot with competition and patent infringement. At about the time he became aware that Raff and Gammon could not hold their monopoly, Porter met a fellow adventurer, an itinerant medicine man who had been cleaning up in the Caribbean on Indian Miracle Oil. They bought an interest in the International Projectorscope, an imitation of the Vitascope, and the rights for the West Indies. Porter had graduated from projectionist to promoter, and set sail for Jamaica and Costa Rica to make his fortune. Years later he confessed to Terry Ramsaye, the screen’s first historian, that he billed himself there as “Mr. Thomas A. Edison, Jr.,” his nom de plume “for use in foreign parts only.” Filmdom was a lawless frontier in those days.