On August 31, 1897, Thomas Edison received a patent for the kinetographic camera, “a certain new and useful Improvement in Kinetoscopes,” the forerunner of the motion picture film projector. Edison and his assistant, W. K. L. Dickson, had begun work on the project—to enliven sound recordings with moving pictures—in hopes of boosting sales of the phonograph, which Edison had invented in 1877. Unable to synchronize the two media, he introduced the kinetoscope, a device for viewing moving pictures without sound—on which work had begun in 1889. Patents were filed for the kinetoscope and kinetograph in August 1891.
The kinetoscope (viewer), which Edison initially considered an insignificant toy, had become an immediate success about a decade earlier. The invention was soon replaced, however, by screen projectors that made it possible for more than one person to view the novel silent movies at the same time.
Edison and Dickson continued to experiment with motion pictures in the late 1880s and into the 1890s. Dickson designed the Black Maria, the first movie studio, which was completed in 1893. The name was derived from the slang for the police paddy wagons that the studio was said to resemble. Between 1893 and 1903, Edison produced more than 250 films at the Black Maria, including many of those found in the collection, Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies at the Library of Congress. Most of the films are short, as it was believed that people would not stand the “flickers” for more than ten minutes.
Turn-of-the-century copyright law provided protection for photographs, but did not yet have a provision for motion pictures. Therefore, a number of early film producers protected their work by submitting paper contact prints (paper prints) of the film’s individual frames – usually on long strips of paper – for copyright registration. By the time the law was amended in 1912, over 3,500 paper prints had been deposited for registration in the United States Copyright Office within the Library of Congress. This practice proved fortuitous, as many early films have been lost due to disintegration and the high combustibility caused by early film’s nitrate base. Many of these paper contact prints were converted back to film in the 1950s, and hundreds were digitized in the 1990s.
- View the motion pictures in the collection Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies.
- Browse other early motion picture collections:
- American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920
- Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904
- Last Days of a President: Films of McKinley and the Pan-American Exposition, 1901.
- The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898 to 1906
- Before and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897 to 1916
- Origins of American Animation
- The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures
- View the Edison kinetoscopic record of a sneeze taken by W.K.L. Dickson, one of Edison’s assistants and copyrighted on January 9, 1894. Known as Fred Ott’s Sneeze for its star, an Edison engineer, this photographic print mounted on card stock is the earliest surviving “motion picture” registered for copyright at the Library of Congress. It is found in the collection PH Filing Series Photographs, which includes photographic prints that have special aesthetic, technical, or historical importance. Items date from the 1840s to the present.
- See an architectural survey of Thomas A. Edison Laboratories, Building No. 5, West Orange, Essex County, NJ in the collection, Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. The survey includes photos and written historical and descriptive data of Edison’s laboratories in New Jersey.
- Search Today in History on invention for features on many inventors and the fruits of their imaginations and hard work. See, for example, the features on Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and photophone and the feature on Samuel Morse’s telegraph.
- Search the Chronicling America newspaper collection for “motion pictures” to read news accounts of the industry and its stars starting from the medium’s invention. Start with the Topics in Chronicling America Features on Thomas Edison and Early Cinema.