Top of page

Collection Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

Shift to Projectors and the Vitoscope


Edison was slow to develop a projection system at this time, since the single-user Kinetoscopes were very profitable. However, films projected for large audiences could generate more profits because fewer machines were needed in proportion to the number of viewers. Thus, others sought to develop their own projection systems.

One inventor who led the way was Woodville Latham who, with his sons, created the Eidoloscope projector which was presented publicly in April 1895. Dickson apparently advised the Lathams on their machine, offering technical knowledge, a situation which led to Dickson leaving Edison's employment on April 2, 1895.

Dickson formed the American Mutoscope Company in December of 1895 with partners Herman Casler, Henry Norton Marvin and Elias Koopman. The company, which eventually came to be known as the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, soon became a major competitor to the Edison Company.

During the same period, C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat developed a motion picture projection device which they called the Phantoscope. It was publicly demonstrated in Atlanta in September 1895 at the Cotton States Exposition. Soon after, the two parted ways, with each claiming sole credit for the invention.

Armat showed the Phantoscope to Raff and Gammon, owners of the Kinetoscope Company, who recognized its potential to secure profits in the face of declining kinetoscope business. They negotiated with Armat to purchase rights to the Phantoscope and approached Edison for his approval. The Edison Manufacturing Company agreed to manufacture the machine and to produce films for it, but on the condition it be advertised as a new Edison invention named the Vitascope.

Advertisement for the Vitascope motion picture projector, marketed by the Edison Manufacturing Company even thought it was invented by Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Vitascope's first theatrical exhibition was on April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City. Other competitors soon displayed their own projection systems in American theaters, including the re-engineered Eidoloscope, which copied Vitascope innovations; the Lumière Cinématographe, which had already debuted in Europe in 1895; Birt Acres' Kineopticon; and the Biograph which was marketed by the American Mutoscope Company. The Vitascope, along with many of the competing projectors, became a popular attraction in variety and vaudeville theaters in major cities across the United States. Motion pictures soon became starring attractions on the vaudeville bill. Exhibitors could choose the films they wanted from the Edison inventory and sequence them in whatever order they wished.

The Edison Company developed its own projector known as the Projectoscope or Projecting Kinetoscope in November 1896, and abandoned marketing the Vitascope.

Edison Film Production 1896-1900

Early films produced by the Edison Company during this period were mostly actuality films. These were motion pictures taken of everyday life and events as they occurred. The Edison Company's actuality films contained scenes of vaudeville performers, notable persons, railway trains, scenic places, foreign views, fire and police workers, military exercises, parades, naval scenes, expositions, parades, and sporting events. A newly-invented mobile camera had made it possible for the Edison Company to film everyday scenes in places outside the studio in a fashion similar to the French Lumière films. Comic skits and films relying on trick effects in the style of French filmmaker Georges Méliès were also popular.

Many film companies at this time frequently copied, or "duped," each other's films to meet exhibitors' demands for a certain product. Edison filmmakers were among those who engaged in this practice, and to protect their own films from being imitated the Edison Company began to copyright films regularly in October 1896. Registrations of films were sent to the Library of Congress for copyright deposit in the form of positive image paper photographic rolls. These "paper prints," along with those received from other companies, accumulated to form the collection known today as the Library of Congress's Paper Print Collection, located in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

Paper print rolls and fragments of motion pictures deposited for copyright at the Library of Congress.

This period witnessed expanded filmmaking activities at the Edison Company, aided by the appointment in October 1896 of James White as head of the Kinetograph Department. Sponsored by transportation companies who saw the potential of movies to promote tourism, White travelled to the West and to Mexico in 1897, filming railroads, hotels and tourist sights. In 1898, he filmed sights in Japan, China, and Hong Kong.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 provided another sphere of activity for the Edison Company. Events surrounding the war drew patrons into the theaters to see films of the conflict. Edison hired William Paley as a licensee to film activities in Cuba. This meant that Paley could operate as an independent agent, but would sell his films to the Edison Company which would then copyright them. Paley traveled to Key West to film the Burial of the Maine Victims, then to Cuba to film additional events there. He traveled to Tampa, Florida, in mid-April, where he filmed troop preparations. He then traveled with the troops to Cuba, shooting a few films before he became ill and had to return home. Actual battles were not filmed; instead, reenactments of key engagements were filmed in New Jersey using the National Guard troops for the most part.

Edison used licensees to film a number of subjects for the company at this time. In his book, The Emergence of Cinema, Charles Musser estimates that half the films sold by the Edison Co. in the period between 1898 and 1900 were made by its licensees, while the other half were made by White and William Heise. Musser further states that by 1900 "acted," or fictional, films had grown to become 40 percent of the company's output, and notes that J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith of the American Vitagraph Company supplied Edison with several popular comedies and trick films as licensees during this time.

Business began to decline by 1900 in the Kinetograph Department. Vaudeville theaters had begun to drop films from their program, or to put them on as "chasers," the closing act that would play while patrons filed out. Competition from Biograph and declining profits made Edison consider selling out to Biograph for a time; however, he eventually decided to restructure and expand his organization.