American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Reason

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A Sneeze Caught On Film

Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze
Edison Film Manufacturing Company
Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze
Gelatin printing-out paper print mounted
on cardstock, 1894
Prints & Photographs Division

Thomas A. Edison began thinking about the development of motion pictures in 1888 after studying the successful motion-sequence still photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey. By early 1889, Edison had conceived the ambitious notion that it must be possible to record motion as perceived by the human eye and play it back in real time. His idea was to go beyond his predecessors, who had adapted the existing photographic equipment of the day to record brief sequences of motion, and invent an entirely new technology to do "for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear."

To turn his new invention into reality, Edison assigned responsibility for day-to-day development to one of his best assistants, a young Englishman named W. K. L. Dickson. By June of 1891, Dickson produced a series of successful experimental motion pictures that were shown to visiting groups at the Edison laboratory in New Jersey.

Over the next two years Dickson worked to perfect the two basic machines required for successful motion pictures: a device to record moving images, which he and Edison called the Kinetograph; and a machine to view the results, which they called the Kinetoscope. A major problem that slowed Dickson's work in the beginning was the nonexistence in the commercial marketplace of another essential invention--motion picture film stock. After Eastman Kodak began supplying quantities of reliable film stock in the fall of 1893, the road to commercial development of the movies was opened.

The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze is one of a series of short films made by Dickson in January 1894 for advertising purposes. The star is Fred Ott, an Edison employee known to his fellow workers in the laboratory for his comic sneezing and other gags. This item was received in the Library of Congress on January 9, 1894, as a copyright deposit from W. K. L. Dickson and is the earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture.

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