The First Movies

While not a complete history of the early days of motion pictures, this is an attempt to illustrate some of the exciting developments of the infant industry.

Although the idea of persistence of vision (an image remains in our eyes for a fraction of a second) was an established one, it wasn't until the late 1880's that there was an attempt to build a mechanism that would capture the real world with a series of photographs that would appear lifelike when rapidly flashed before one's eyes. Elaborate systems had been used for early animation (they often had a toy-like appearance) and magic lantern slide shows illustrated stories that an audience could follow, but it was goal of these inventors to create a machine that could capture "reality" much like it is seen by the participants. Earlier, Edward Muybridge used a series of cameras to record animal as well as human locomotion. In order to project his short "films" during his lecture tours, he created the zoopraxiscope. Thus, he has been credited by some as the creator of the motion picture.

As is often the case, there were many people around the world working on the problem at the same time. The leader in the U.S.A. was the inventor of the light bulb and the phonograph, Thomas Edison, whose talented assistant W.K. Laurie Dickson originated one of the first practical systems in the late 1880's, which incorporated a motion picture camera he named a kinetograph and a viewing system called the kinetoscope. These devices were patented in 1891. The world's first movie studio, the "Black Maria" was built under Dickson's direction in 1891-92 and many short films were made there, including "Buffalo Bill's Shooting Skill"," Sioux Ghost Dance","Boxing Cats", "The Sneeze", and "Cripple Creek Bar-room" (1899), the first "western". By 1892 these short movies could be seen at Penny Arcades or Peep Shows, or perhaps more appropriately, Kinetoscope Parlors.

A Muybridge motion study. The Black Maria, the worlds's first movie studio. Interior of the Black Maria Cripple Creek Bar-Room (1899). Click for more info. San Francisco Kinetoscope Parlor The Sneeze

Eventually, projectors were made that enabled a showman to present these films to a much larger audience. Movie theaters sprang up around the country (and the world) and were very successful for a time showing these film vignettes, often of city scenes, waves lapping at the shore, and trains coming towards the camera (quite a shocker until the novelty wore off). Actually, the movies appeared to be just a fad until true creative artists, such as Melies in France, began to make films that revitalized the industry.

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1906). Scientific American Article.

Foremost among the American film makers was Edwin S. Porter, who made a number of successful movies for Edison. His "Life of an American Fireman" (1903) actually told a basic story, and his later "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend" (1906) was both inovative (if imitative of Melies) and amusing.

The next page presents the Porter film "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) with stills taken from the movie. This most celebrated early western--a great hit of its day-- was filmed in New Jersey and featured actors who weren't quite the westerners that we would later expect, but at least the action moved swiftly as it told the classic story about a daring train robbery and the eventual downfall of the gang at the hands of a posse. One of the players went on to be the first western star in numerous short films--Broncho Billy Anderson.

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