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The Early History and Development of Film

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Stills from Edison's Kinetoscopic 1894 film record of a sneeze.

Films and the cinematic arts were a dominant form of entertainment throughout the 20th Century. Yet cinema as an art form was invented earlier, in the closing years of the 19th Century.

There is no general consensus among film historians as to when exactly the medium of film was born. Some believe it was as early as the 1880s, others as late as 1897. Nonetheless, moving pictures were born when celluloid film was combined with the early cameras. The Lumière brothers or Thomas Edison, both of whom influenced many filmmakers who followed them, are often quoted as being the inventor of modern moving pictures. In fact the earliest inventor of a device that is recognisably a film camera and projector was probably Le Prince.

Moving pictures is not a single technology, but rather required a mix of three main technologies, with several others tagged on to improve the process. Key elements include:

  • A camera with a shutter speed high enough to be able to freeze motion.
  • A filmstrip capable of taking multiple exposures quickly.
  • A projector to display the images onto a screen in a way that displays motion.

Steam Engine Theory and the Cinema

In 1878 Robert Thurston invented Steam Engine Theory in his book, A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine. In it he wrote:

History illustrates the very important truth: inventions are never, as great discoveries are seldom, the work of any one mind. Every great invention is really either an aggregation of minor inventions, or the final step in a progression. It is not a creation, but a growth... the same invention is frequently brought out in several countries, and by several individuals, simultaneously.

In the early invention of film is there is no definitive date from which the history of film can be said to begin. Cinema, like the steam engine, was not invented in a complete, fully working form in one stroke. Instead it was a gradual evolution over time, refined and improved until different people in different parts of the world combined all the required elements in different ways at the same time, each creating what we know as cinema today. Sadly it is common for those whom posterity credits with inventing something to be those who can afford the most publicity, rather than those who most deserve it. A lack of commercial success by many of the inventors of the 19th Century has meant that they are often not given the recognition they deserve.

Development of Related Inventions

For the film camera and projector to exist, other inventions had to exist first, many of which can be seen as steps towards the evolution of the cinema as well as innovations and inventions in their own right.

Camera Obscura

Literally translated from the Latin as 'a dark room', the Camera Obscura works on the principle that in a darkened room with only a single 'pinhole' light-source, an image of the outside view through the hole will be projected onto the back wall opposite the hole.

The Camera Obscura was known to humans long before the advent of photography, and first featured as part of an illustration in a book by Johannes De Fontana in 1420. It was not used to capture images, merely retain them in one place. The principle that the Camera Obscura relies on to project the far-away image, called a pinhole image, can itself be traced back to fifth-century China, and Aristotle (384-322 BC) was reportedly familiar with the concept. The Camera Obscura allowed such people as Leonardo da Vinci to paint and draw images in great detail without having to focus on a far-away object.

The Magic Lantern and The Projector

The original Magic Lantern was a simple projector that was illuminated by candles and oil lamps. It is believed that the Magic Lantern was invented by Athanasius Kircher in 16441, however it should be noted that a drawing of what appears to be a Magic Lantern can be found in the drawings of Leonardo Di Vinci.

Robert Hooke, 1666

Robert Hooke was born in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight on 27 July, 1653. He began inventing wooden clocks and miniature guns as a child, and after designing air-pumps, diving-bells, watches and micrometers, was appointed the first Curator of Instruments to the Royal Society. His principal work was with lenses, many of which he used to study the microscopic world, inventing the word 'cell' to apply to biological structures.

Robert Hooke developed the Camera Lucida in 1666, a portable cone-shaped Camera Obscura which could be used to project images onto a wall during the day, and by using mirrors for magnification, worked even if the room itself was well-lit. Through studying how eyes worked, Hooke was able to use lenses to imitate the iris, creating the iris diaphragm. It was adjustable, and later came in a portable version to be used by draughtsmen and tourists wishing to make sketches. Lenses and the iris diaphragm would be vital components in camera design.

Roget, 1824

Peter Mark Roget was a theorist best known for being the author of the famous thesaurus that bears his name. Debate rages about whether he laid the groundwork for moving pictures in his article Explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel seen through vertical apertures, which was delivered to the Royal Society on 9 December, 1824. This stated that viewing at least 16 images per second gives the impression of motion rather than flickering. His essay is also known as Persistence of Vision with Regard to Moving Objects, principally and deliberately in order to make it sound like he was a theorist on moving pictures2.

Roget is often credited with inventing the Thaumatrope, a disc with a picture on each side (such as a bird on one side, a cage on the other) which, when spun, gives the impression that the two images are in fact one (ie, the bird is in the cage).

Phenakistiscope, 1832

The Phenakistiscope was invented by Belgian Joseph Plateau at around the same time as Austrian Simon Ritter von Stampfer was inventing his Wheel of Life. Both devices consisted of a pair of discs on a single axle. One disc carried a small number of sequential drawings; the second disc was equipped with eye slits. By spinning the first disc behind the second disc, the slits acted as a shutter and created for the viewer the illusion of movement. It may seem a rudimentary and simplistic form of animation today, but in 1833 it was revolutionary. For the first time, people were able to see 'moving pictures'.

William George Horner, 1834

William George Horner invented the Zoetrope, a similar idea but using a rotating drum with the image beneath eye-level, and several slots above. Zoetropes were easy to make and soon found their way into Victorian nurseries worldwide.

Daguerreotype, 1839

The Daguerreotype was the ancestor of the cinema building. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre projected still images onto huge screens, accompanied by live music.

Eadweard Muybridge, 1877

Englishman Edward Muggeridge, who later changed his name to Eadweard Muybridge, was employed by California's governor, the railway magnate Leland Stanford, to photograph his horse to see whether or not a trotting horse ever had all four feet off the ground simultaneously. In 1877, with the help of engineer John D Isaacs, he developed a system of trip-wires that triggered a series of cameras to prove that horses when trotting do indeed lift all four feet into the air. He published these photographs, and those of other animals and humans in movement, in 1887 in a book entitled Animal Locomotion, An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movement. Although Muybridge is often called 'the father of motion pictures', as his series of photographs can be projected to give the illusion of movement, his aim was to freeze motion, not make pictures move. He later visited Thomas Edison in February 1888. His photographs of horses can be seen here.

Chronophotographic Gun, 1882

Étienne-Jules Marey invented the Chronophotographic Gun in 1882. This was a gun-shaped camera that could capture a series of photographs in quick succession. Marey used it to study the flight of birds and bats.

Goodwin, 1887

Harry Goodwin invented celluloid film in May 1887. Although celluloid film rolls are strong and flexible, they decay irreversibly over time and are highly flammable, meaning that many of the early films recorded on them have now been lost forever. The following year, celluloid film was patented by George Eastman of the Eastman Photographics Materials Company, later to become known as Eastman Kodak.

Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, 1888

In 1888 the first photographed and projected motion picture was made by Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince when he filmed his in-law Whitley and his son Adolphe Le Prince for two seconds in the garden of their house in Roundhay Park, Leeds. Filmed on 14 October, 1888, and known as The Roundhay Garden Scene, this was followed by a film of people and traffic crossing Leeds Bridge, known as Leeds Bridge, as well as a third film, Accordion Player, now lost. The first two of these films still exist, and are the oldest films in the world. Le Prince patented his invention all around the world and a global career beckoned. Sadly Le Prince mysteriously disappeared shortly after catching a train to Paris in 1890.

Wordsworth Donisthorpe and William Carr Crofts, 1889

Working on motion pictures together for over a decade, they created a machine they called the Kinesigraph that could film 10 frames per second, shooting a one-second film of Trafalgar Square in 1890. They were unable to interest any financial backing for further developing their invention.

Thomas Edison, 1889

Thomas Edison was not only the wealthiest of the early cinema pioneers but also the best at self-publicity. For someone often considered the father of cinema, curiously he was strongly opposed initially to projecting films onto a screen. In 1889 his assistant, the inventor William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, invented the Kinetograph, which projected film onto a screen. Edison failed to see any benefit, and so instructed Dickson to come up with something for an individual to use, but still filed a patent on it and the perforated film that it used.

In 1891 the Kinetoscope was invented, which allowed individuals to watch a 30-second film through a peep-hole. More importantly, it was both popular and profitable. Films included Edison Kinetoscope Record of a Sneeze, in which a man appears to sneeze, and Electrocuting an Elephant, in which a real elephant is sadly electrocuted.

Dickson, disenchanted with Edison, formed a new company in 1896 with the Latham brothers, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Dickson was one of many disgruntled employees who would leave Edison's service to work elsewhere.

Thomas Edison finally first projected a film on 23 April, 1896, using a Vitascope projector invented by Thomas Armat. This miracle was on 34th Street and Broadway, at what was Koster and Bial's Music Hall and is now Macy's department store. A plaque exists commemorating the event. Edison famously remarked that he believed there was no need for more than 10 film projectors in the United States. An electric lightbulb then switched on in Edison's head and he spent the next two decades suing all other American filmmakers for making unauthorised imitations of the projector he had previously patented, trying to force all other filmmakers in America out of business.

Marvellous Cinematograph, 1894

Jean Acmé Leroy projected Edison's films onto a screen for a private audience in Clinton, New Jersey in February 1895, using his device called the Marvellous Cinematograph. He was later hired by the Latham brothers to develop a projector for them, which they used to open their first cinema the following year.

Auguste and Louis Lumière, 1895

On 22 March, 1895 the Lumière brothers projected a 1-minute 800-frame film entitled Sortie des usines Lumière, translated as Leaving the Lumière Factory at the Société d'Encouragment pour L'Industrie Nationale, as well as coloured slides. The audience was amazed, and demanded that the film be shown again. Their invention was later known as the Cinématographe, inspiring the word 'cinema'.

The Lumières' father, Antoine Lumière, had opened a photographic plate manufacturing plant in 1870 and encouraged his sons to train as research scientists before they took over the family business. They later opened their first cinema on 28 December, 1895 in the Grand Café on Boulevard des Capucines, to an audience of 33. Within a year, their 120-seat cinema was attracting over 2,000 people a day.

One of their earliest films, L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, known in English as Train Pulling Into a Station and Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, showed a train pulling into a station and, according to myth, when the audience saw the train coming straight at them on the screen, they panicked and either hid under their seats or ran out screaming. Although almost all films at this time were factual, the Lumières made the first fictional film in 1895, entitled l'Arroseur arrosé, translated into English as both The Sprinkler Sprinkled and The Waterer Watered. This had the complex plot of a man happily watering his garden until a boy steps onto the hose pipe. The man looks at the pipe to see why water isn't coming out, the boy steps off the pipe, the man is splurted with water in his face, and then spanks the boy.

One of the men who had attended the Lumières' premiere was Marie Georges Méliès, the owner of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris. When he asked Antoine Lumière, the father of the Lumière brothers, about purchasing a film camera and projector, he was told:

The invention is not for sale, it would be the ruin of you. It can be exhibited for a while due to its scientific interest, but apart from that the machine has no future.

Panoptikon, later called the Eidoloscope

The first film to be projected in America was shown by brothers Otway and Gray Latham on Frankfort Street, New York City on 21 April, 1895. The film showed boys playing in a park, while the Latham brothers' father smoked a pipe and read a book. One month later on 20 May they open the world's first cinema at 156 Broadway.

Robert William Paul

Inventor Paul, known as the 'Father of the British Film Industry', was Britain's first premier filmmaker, a film manufacturer and producer. With partner, photographer Birt Acres, he invented the Animatograph, also known as the Paul-Acres camera, in 1895. This improved on Edison's camera design through the use of a Maltese-cross shaped wheel, which stopped each frame of film for a moment, reducing the jerkiness of the image projected on the screen. This was used by Acres to film both the Derby and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race that year, although Paul and Acres fell out over a patent application that Acres had made in his own name apparently based on a design that they had both developed together.

Paul invented the theatrograph projector in 1896, the year in which he made the first fiction film in Britain, comedy The Soldier's Courtship. He founded the Paul Animatograph Company in 1897 and built an impressive film studio, Britain's first, in 1899. With the number of American imported films reduced, British filmmakers such as Paul initially flourished while France dominated the film world. Paul left the film business in 1910 in order to concentrate on his other interests and inventions.

Georges Méliès

One of the earliest converts to the world of cinema following the Lumière brothers' first showing was Georges Méliès, owner of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris. In early 1896 he began to display the Lumières' films in his own theatre, but was so enamoured by the new medium that he purchased his own camera to make films with. Initially, these were of the popular acts at the theatre, but he soon realised that the medium of film had many possibilities no-one had previously explored. In 1897 he designed and built one of the first film studios at a cost of 90,000 Francs, in a glass building he designed himself.

Méliès began to experiment to see what illusions he could create with trick photography, and combined film techniques he pioneered and invented – such as double exposures3, split screen, stop-motion, superimposition, dissolves and cuts – with his theatrical background to make his films do things that no other filmmaker showed. Not only was he a pioneer of special effects, he also was a storyteller. His films were not just of people leaving a factory or a train travelling along, and showed the fantastic and unbelievable. He also experimented in sound, filming a singer named Paulus who then hid behind the screen and sang while the film clip was shown.

Sadly Thomas Edison took advantage of the genius by stealing his most famous film, Le Voyage dans la Lune, and taking all the profit that it made in America. Méliès was forced into bankruptcy in 1913 and ended up working in a shop at Montparnasse train station selling toys.

Timeline of Cinema History in the 19th Century


DateEvent
1834Zoetrope invented.
1877Eadweard Muybridge's series of photographs of a trotting horse.
1882Étienne-Jules Marey invents the Chronophotographic Gun.
1888Le Prince makes the world's first films, Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge, in Leeds.
1889In Britain, William Friese-Greene patents a moving-picture camera.
1891Thomas Edison and William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson invent the Kinetoscope which allows individuals to watch a film through a peep-hole. Edison patents it.
1894Annabella's Dance becomes the first film in colour. The colour is added by painting each frame by hand.
1895, 22 March Lumière brothers project the film Leaving the Lumière Factory to an audience.
1895, 21 April First projected film shown to an American public by Otway and Gray Latham.
1895, 20 May Otway and Gray Latham open America's first cinema.
1895, 1 November Max Skladanowsky accepts payment for a film shown at the Berlin Wintergarten using his Bioskope, becoming the first man in Europe to show films for a paying audience.
1895, 28 December Lumière brothers open Europe's first cinema.
1896, 14 January Birt Acres creates the Kineoptikon and opens Britain's first cinema.
1896, 23 April Thomas Edison projects his first film.
1896, 29 June Lumière brothers display their Cinematograph at Union Square Music Hall, New York. Their Cinematograph is markedly superior to Edison's Vitascope.
1896Georges Méliès' Star Film Company makes its first effects film, Escamotage d'une dame au théâtre Robert Houdin, also called The Conjuring of a Woman at the House of Robert Houdin, in which actress Jehanne d'Alcy's head appears to be removed from her body and lifted over candles.
1896 Charles and Emile Pathé form Pathé, which quickly becomes the largest film company in the world. By 1902 Pathé are making a film a day and by 1908, Pathé distributed over twice as many films in America as all American film manufacturers combined.
1896, 12 October Dickson forms the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company.
1897, 24 July Dingley Bill passed in America to protect the delicate American film industry from the dominant foreign, particularly French and British, films. All imported films to pay up to 65% import tax.
1897First film nudity in Méliès' Après le bal, also called After the Ball, the Bath.
1897The first filmed advert, for Admiral cigarettes.
1897150 people die in a Paris Charity Bazaar cinema fire.
1897Thomas Edison begins suing all other American filmmakers for patent infringements, trying to create a monopoly. As the number of American filmmakers and films decrease, French and British filmmakers in particular flourish.
1897Léon Gaumont begins making films. His secretary, Alice Guy, would soon become Head of Production at Gaumont.
1898Spanish-American War becomes the first war filmed4, although the footage filmed by the Vitagraph Company5 was faked.
1899Second Boer War becomes the first war covered by predominantly genuine footage, filmed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company.
1899Englishman Edward Raymond Turner patents the first method for making a film in colour, filming Goldfish in a Bowl in 1902. His system used a set of three colour filters, red, green and blue on black-and-white film giving the illusion of colour.
1900Léon Gaumont synchronises sound and pictures.
1901, 4 February The funeral of Queen Victoria is filmed and the Victorian era is over.
1903 Intertitles first introduced to explain what is happening in a film.

So, Who Invented the Cinema?

No one person solely created the cinema, although there are four key players whose contribution was perhaps greater than their rivals:

  • Louis Le Prince
    He made the first two films, both of which still exist today, however his disappearance6 meant he was unable to build on his success.

  • Auguste and Louis Lumière
    The first to have the vision to show a film on a big screen to an audience, and the first to open a cinema.

  • Thomas Edison
    The businessman who inadvertently created Hollywood. In 1908 he formed the Motion Picture Patent Company, attempting to create a monopoly on filmmaking in America. His rivals fled as far away from Edison's New Jersey base as possible, to Hollywood on the other side of the country, where it would be more difficult for Edison to sue them. Many of his rivals formed the Independent Motion Picture Company in 1909, which later evolved into Universal Studios. Universal Studios still exists, the Motion Pictures Patent Company does not, having been declared to be behaving illegally by the US Department of Justice in 1912 and its refusal to abandon the 10-minute short film format.

  • Georges Méliès
    Le Prince was an inventor, the Lumières were visionaries, Edison was a businessman but Georges Méliès was the first auteur. Méliès took films and transformed them from documentaries and made them adventures, turned displays into theatrical shows.

1At least, this is the first time evidence has been found of his lantern in the book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae.2'Persistence of vision' is commonly misunderstood to be one of the principles that make moving pictures appear to move. The principle of 'Persistence of vision' has been observed since ancient times.3Another type of exposure could be seen in his film Après le bal, also called After the Ball, the Bath, in which a woman has a bath. This was the first nude scene in film history.4Including by Georges Méliès, whose film Quais de La Havane et Explosion du cuirassé Le Maine, (The Explosion of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbour), was made in his studio in Montreuil, France. For underwater scenes the actors are filmed through an aquarium.5One of the three main American film companies at the time, Vitagraph was later taken over by Warner Brothers in the 1920s.6One widely accepted theory is that he drowned, although why and how he drowned after being last seen boarding a train to Paris is unknown.

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