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1891 One Hundred Years Ago

June 2023
1min read

Movie Makers

On July 30, after procrastinating for nearly two years, Thomas Alva Edison applied for patents on his kinetograph and kinetoscope. He declined to pay an additional $150 to secure an international copyright for what was in fact motion-picture technology, declaring it was “not worth it.”

By the time he had begun to think seriously about motion photography, Edison already owned important patents for his refinements of the telegraph and the incandescent lamp, as well as for inventing the carbon telephone transmitter. His first motion-picture efforts, with an assistant, William Dickson, approached motion photography by rotating thick celluloid sheets around a large cylinder. This was already an improvement over photography’s traditional glass plates, but the device could record only five seconds’ worth of action at a time. Edison and Dickson concluded in the spring of 1889 that strips of film fed horizontally through a camera could allow an unlimited recording surface. That August George Eastman, of Rochester, New York, produced the first film that seemed flexible and durable enough. Edison sent Dickson to New York to buy a fifty-foot length for $2.50. “We’ve got it!” he shouted on seeing the new film. “Now work like hell!”

Edison and Dickson next punched holes along one side of the film length and developed sprockets to advance it past the shutter. The team’s second motion-picture camera was the size of an upright piano and used thirty-five-millimeter film, which has remained the standard width for one hundred years. Edison actually started out with a talkie; motion pictures and the phonograph were combined in his original kinetoscope, a peep show with synchronized music that he exhibited at the 1893 Chicago world’s fair.

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