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Inventors In The Cinema

One of our favourite forms of entertainment is the result of many inventors and their inventions.  Here is a brief history...

Peter Knight

Related further reading...

Further Reading:

The Inventions before 1896


Shadow plays, involving projection using a lantern and animated puppets, date back to the 1420s in Europe, having spread from India or Java via the Middle East. Seraphin opened a shadow play theatre in Versailles in 1776 which survived the French Revolution and ran until the 1850s. The Magic Lantern is mentioned in Pepys diary in the 17th century, and by 1800 travelling showmen were using lanterns with a lens and illuminated by oil. The Fantasmagorie of the 1790s projected ghost shows from a hidden lantern onto smoke. The development of large scale entertainment soon became possible when Professor Robert Hare invented the oxy-hydrogen blowlamp in 1802; this led to Lieutenant Thomas Drummond's signal light of 1826, which used calcium oxide to produce the 'lime light'.


The Thaumatrope demonstrated persistence of vision, which the Victorians thought important for perception, although we now know this to be psychological. Joseph Plateau in Belgium and then Michael Faraday in England studied persistence of vision in the 1820s and this led to the spinning slits of the Phenakistoscope invented by Plateau, and the simultaneous independent invention, in 1833, by the Austrian Simon Stampfer of an almost identical device which he named the Stroboscope. In 1867, M. Bradley (on 6th March in England) and William E. Lincoln (on 23rd April in America), filed virtually identical patents for The Zoetrope, this used 13 slots and 13

pictures spinning round in a metal cylinder: varying the number of pictures simulated relative figure movement. The device was cheaper to produce, ran more smoothly and for longer than the Phenkistoscope, and could be viewed by several people at once. A large number of devices were being developed throughout Europe and America, and by the 1880s audiences of 3000 were watching shows involving 2 or 3 lanterns dissolving in and out to produce an absorbing experience.


The next step was to use sequence photography to create moving pictures, and the first successful device for sequence photography was Eadweard Muybridge, who took 12 photographs of the horse 'Abe Edgington' in 1878 and demonstrated how this represented a mere half second of motion. His Zoopraxiscope device of 1879 can be seen in the Kingston Museum, Surrey, UK. Inspired by Muybridge's work, the Frenchman Etienne-Jules Marey analysed high-speed motion and throughout the early 1890s, helped by developments such as sensitized paper superseding glass plates and general improvements in the equipment available, produced chronophotographic sequence cameras and demonstrated the principles which formed the basis of the cinematography.


Edison's Kinetoscope was the first equipment to use 35mm film, but this was a single viewer machine. The designer W.K.L.Dixon worked for Edison in the USA and then in 1894 moved to England where he helped develop the Mutoscope ('What the Butler Saw') machines.


The first shows


The Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, produced what is arguably the first real cinema show with the presentation of their Lumiere Cinematographe to a paying audience at the Grand Cafe in Paris on 28th December 1895.

In the meanwhile, Robert (R.W.) Paul, a London engineer, had seen the Kinetoscope parlour in Oxford Street and discovered that the machine had not been patented in England. He set about making copies, only to be frustrated when he tried to buy films which the suppliers would only sell to purchasers of the original machines. However, he soon met up with Birt Acres, a photographer, and together they produced a camera virtually identical to Marey's chronophotographic film camera. On 30th March 1895, Acres filmed the Oxford and Cambridge boat race, and on 29th May the same year he filmed the Derby. On 27th May, Acres patented the Kinetic camera - based on the Paul-Acres machine, and this was probably the cause of the split between the two men which arose shortly after Acres had returned from Germany where he had filmed the June opening of the Kiel canal. The films were only viewed as a peep-show until Acres projected them, to the Royal Photographic Society on 14th January 1896, and later with his Kineopticon at Piccadilly Circus on 21st March 1896, about a month after the Lumieres' first London show.


Until purpose-built cinemas began to appear around 1910, shows would be presented as a turn at the theatre or shown in converted shops. Fairground Bioscope shows toured from 1896 until the end of World War One.


The film used was the 2 3/4 inch (70mm) film developed for Kodak snapshot cameras, which most early movie men split in half, although the Biograph used 70mm film to give better quality. It is often suggested that the technical qualities of the early films are superior to later black and white films, however it must be realised that as the Lumieres' father owned a photographic business they were original manufacturers, and so their lovingly made films should not be compared to a well-worn duplicate of a 30's B-movie.

Sound and Colour


The first films had no sound unless the pit orchestra chose to play an accompaniment or the operator devised his own sound effects or used a device such as the 'Allefex' machine. Sound produced by a gramophone playing records synchronised to the film was first demonstrated by Leon Gaumont at the Paris Exposition of 1900, but there were considerable difficulties involving speed variations and sound amplification. Gaumont continued his developing and in 1910 he demonstrated his Chronophone to the Academie des Sciences in Paris. In Germany, Oskar Meester patented several synchronisation methods in 1903, and within 10 years his Biophon system was installed in 500 German theatres. The first internationally successful method was the Vitaphone system, backed by Sam Warner of Warner Brothers, which was used in the 1927 Al Jolson film 'The Jazz Singer'. The system was based on 16 inch discs, playing at 33 1/3 rpm from the centre out, but within 3 years the costs of breakages and shipping the disks led Warner Brothers to discontinue the system. Although F. von Madelar had patented various inventions for mechanically recording sound on film in 1913, and Emil Lauste had demonstrated sound-on-film recording around the same time, their ideas were largely unexploited. The eventual system adopted in 1928 arose from an amalgamation of Lee de Forest and Theodore Case's Phonofilm system with Charles A. Hoxie's Photophone system. Subsequent developments in sound have been the Dolby system, and more recently digital sound in the forms of Dolby digital which is on the film and Digital Theatre Sound (DTS) which is on a Compact Disc that is automatically synchronised even if the film is edited.


The first successful results with colour filming and projection involved the Kinemacolor system, patented in November 1906 by George Albert Smith, a Brighton film-maker. A 'full colour' image is produced by shooting alternate frames on 'black and white' film with red and green filters and then projecting the film back with appropriate filter at 32 frames per second (double speed). This produces a colour image devoid of pure blue, however modern experiments have shown the results to be effective.


3-D films come and go, but are generally disliked on the grounds that the glasses cause headaches. In reality the headaches are caused by the brain trying to compensate for misaligned images, caused by the film being either badly shot or projected: both these functions require great skill by the operator.


One system in use today is the IMAX system which uses 70mm film sideways to give better quality.


In the early days of cinema, no one was entirely sure of the correct way to retain copyright of their film, and as a result the Library of Congress has a collection of frame-by-frame paper prints of films up to 1912. In a neat twist to the original reason for the copy being made, there are instances where these paper prints have been re- filmed to produce a new copy of a film of which no other record remains.


Thank you to the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) and Stephen Herbert of the British Film Institute for their help with this article.


Magic Lantern

Muybridge study in motion



Edison Kinetoscope


Lumiere Cinematographe


Vitaphone Projector and Sound Turntable


The massive IMAX screen and (below) London IMAX

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