Hollywood History, Part 1 - Early Technology

Lumiere Brothers
Auguste and Louis Lumière

Part 1 - Early Technology

Hollywood movies would not exist without the early inventions which created the technology to make and screen films. The necessary technology for motion photography was invented and developed at the end of the nineteenth century and arose in different places and at different times, and invented and developed by a variety of people.

Moviemaking depended on three things: flexible photographic film, a camera able to take moving pictures and a projector able to show them.

Photographic film suitable for motion photography was invented by George Eastman and William H. Walker in 1885. Shortly afterwards a hand-cranked machine called the cinématographe was invented by the French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, followed swiftly by numerous other independently developed camera and projection systems.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light bulb and the phonograph, was also an aggressive businessman who played an active role in the development of the movie industry.

In 1888 he began to design machines capable of making and showing moving pictures. He filed a patent for what he called the Kinetoscope - a cylinder with photographic images arranged in a spiral pattern around it. His assistant, William Dickson, in 1891 designed the Kinetographic camera, which was powered by an electric motor and was capable of using the newly invented sprocketed film. Due to the work of Dickson, the Lumière brothers, and other inventors, the movie camera had become a practical reality.

The Kinetoscope

By late 1891, Edison and Dickson had their Kinetograph camera and Kinetoscope viewing box ready for patenting and demonstration. The Kinetoscope had developed into a cabinet through which a single individual at a time could watch a film. When the customer inserted a coin, a light shone and the film, which was on a spool, was projected onto the back of the cabinet. Using Eastman film cut into inch wide strips, Dickson had the idea of punching four holes into each side of every film frame and pulling the film through the camera by means of toothed gears.

Film gauge 1892

A confusing variety of gauge sizes (film width) had been used for the different projection systems, ranging from 13mm up to 75mm and the confusion was increased by the different film feeding systems. In 1892 the 35mm width was introduced by Edison and Dickson, using film stock supplied by Eastman. The 35mm gauge with Dickson's four perforations per frame was quickly taken up by most of the studios. This Edison system, which combined cost effectiveness and good quality, had become standardised by 1909. As a result, movies as a means of mass entertainment, spread rapidly and a new industry was born.

Thomas Edison and the First Film Studio 1893

In 1893 William Dickson designed the world's first purpose built film studio located in New Jersey in the grounds of Edison's laboratories, and nicknamed the Black Maria. It was a small, enclosed building which had an opening roof and which revolved to follow the movement of the sun. Amongst other films, the studio produced 'The Kiss' in 1896, and then, after moving to Manhattan, 'The Great Train Robbery' in 1903 and 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' in 1910.

The Edison company sold the kinetoscope machines for $250 each and then granted licences for use within specific areas. The kinetoscope was an immediate sensation. The first commercial viewing parlor, with ten kinetoscopes, opened in New York in April, 1894, and soon many more opened throughout the country.

Film going at the end of the 19th century was primarily a working class pastime. Because the movies were silent, they appealed to the large immigrant population in the United States, who had only a rudimentary grasp of English.

In many ways, the initial development of American cinema was entwined with the development of the film industry in Europe, particularly France with the Lumiere and Pathé brothers, Léon Gaumont and Georges Mélies.

The Lumière brothers 1895

The birth of modern cinema has been dated to December 28th, 1895 when a 25 minute programme of ten films was shown at the Grand Café in Paris. All the films had been made by the Lumière brothers of Lyons in France. The brothers had invented and patented the The Cinématographe, which allowed films to be projected and seen simultaneously by multiple viewers, in contrast to Edison's Kinetoscope, which was a peephole device, viewed by users one at a time. The technical specifications of the Cinématographe, which used 35-millimeter film and had a projection speed of 16 frames per second, would become industry standards during the silent period.

Hollywood History, Part 1 - Early Technology 1888-1900

Hollywood History, Part 2 - The Movie Industry Evolves 1900-1910

Hollywood History, Part 3 - The Growth of Hollywood and of the Studios 1910-1920

Hollywood History, Part 4 - The Development of Silent Movies 1910-29

Hollywood History, Part 5 - The Rise of the Studios

Hollywood History, Musicals - pre 1940