An overview of Thomas A. Edison's involvement in motion pictures detailing the development of the Kinetoscope, the films of the Edison Manufacturing Company, and the company's ultimate decline is given here. This essay relies heavily on the research and writings of film historians Charles Musser, David Robinson, and Eileen Bowser. More detailed information can be found in their books listed in the Bibliography, as well as in additional source materials.
The concept of moving images as entertainment was not a new one by the latter part of the 19th century. Magic lanterns and other devices had been employed in popular entertainment for generations. Magic lanterns used glass slides with images which were projected. The use of levers and other contrivances made these images "move". Another mechanism called a Phenakistiscope consisted of a disc with images of successive phases of movement on it which could be spun to simulate movement. Additionally, there was the Zoopraxiscope, developed by photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1879, which projected a series of images in successive phases of movement. These images were obtained through the use of multiple cameras. The invention of a camera in the Edison laboratories capable of recording successive images in a single camera was a more practical, cost-effective breakthrough that influenced all subsequent motion picture devices.
While there has been speculation that Edison's interest in motion pictures began before 1888, the visit of Eadweard Muybridge to the inventor's laboratory in West Orange in February of that year certainly stimulated Edison's resolve to invent a motion picture camera. Muybridge proposed that they collaborate and combine the Zoopraxiscope with the Edison phonograph. Although apparently intrigued, Edison decided not to participate in such a partnership, perhaps realizing that the Zoopraxiscope was not a very practical or efficient way of recording motion. In an attempt to protect his future inventions, Edison filed a caveat with the Patents Office on October 17, 1888, describing his ideas for a device which would "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear" -- record and reproduce objects in motion. Edison called the invention a "Kinetoscope," using the Greek words "kineto" meaning "movement" and "scopos" meaning "to watch."
Edison's assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, was given the task of inventing the device in June 1889, possibly because of his background as a photographer. Charles A. Brown was made Dickson's assistant. There has been some argument about how much Edison himself contributed to the invention of the motion picture camera. While Edison seems to have conceived the idea and initiated the experiments, Dickson apparently performed the bulk of the experimentation, leading most modern scholars to assign Dickson with the major credit for turning the concept into a practical reality. The Edison laboratory, though, worked as a collaborative organization. Laboratory assistants were assigned to work on many projects while Edison supervised and involved himself and participated to varying degrees. Ultimately, Edison made the important decisions, and, as the "Wizard of West Orange," took sole credit for the products of his laboratory.
The initial experiments on the Kinetograph were based on Edison's conception of the phonograph cylinder. Tiny photographic images were affixed in sequence to a cylinder, with the idea that when the cylinder was rotated the illusion of motion would be reproduced via reflected light. This ultimately proved to be impractical.
The work of others in the field soon prompted Edison and his staff to move in a different direction. In Europe Edison had met French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey who used a continuous roll of film in his Chronophotographe to produce a sequence of still images, but the lack of film rolls of sufficient length and durability for use in a motion picture device delayed the inventive process. This dilemma was aided when John Carbutt developed emulsion-coated celluloid film sheets, which began to be used in the Edison experiments. The Eastman Company later produced its own celluloid film which Dickson soon bought in large quantities. By 1890, Dickson was joined by a new assistant, William Heise, and the two began to develop a machine that exposed a strip of film in a horizontal-feed mechanism.
A prototype for the Kinetoscope was finally shown to a convention of the National Federation of Women's Clubs on May 20, 1891. The device was both a camera and a peep-hole viewer, and the film used was 18mm wide. According to David Robinson who describes the Kinetoscope in his book, From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film, the film "ran horizontally between two spools, at continuous speed. A rapidly moving shutter gave intermittent exposures when the apparatus was used as a camera, and intermittent glimpses of the positive print when it was used as a viewer--when the spectator looked through the same aperture that housed the camera lens."
A patent for the Kinetograph (the camera) and the Kinetoscope (the viewer) was filed on August 24, 1891.
The Kinetoscope was apparently completed by 1892. David Robinson writes:
It consisted of an upright wooden cabinet, 18 in. x 27 in. x 4 ft. high, with a peephole with magnifying lenses in the top...Inside the box the film, in a continuous band of approximately 50 feet, was arranged around a series of spools. A large, electrically driven sprocket wheel at the top of the box engaged corresponding sprocket holes punched in the edges of the film, which was thus drawn under the lens at a continuous rate. Beneath the film was an electric lamp, and between the lamp and the film a revolving shutter with a narrow slit. As each frame passed under the lens, the shutter permitted a flash of light so brief that the frame appeared to be frozen. This rapid series of apparently still frames appeared, thanks to the persistence of vision phenomenon, as a moving image. (From Peep Show to Palace, p. 34)
At this point, the horizontal-feed system had been changed to one in which the film was fed vertically. The viewer would look into a peep-hole at the top of the cabinet in order to see the image move. The first public demonstration of the Kinetoscope was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9, 1893.