Thomas Edison and the Amusement World
2The Phonograph Becomes a Source of Entertainment
Thomas Edison and the Amusement World
Edison and the Invention of Modern Motion Pictures
William Kennedy Laurie Dickson Becomes Edison's Motion-Picture Expert
Commercial Moving Pictures
Marketing and Exploiting the Kinetoscope
In "inventing" modern motion pictures, Thomas Alva Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson developed a complex communications system—not a single invention but a whole group of inventions. While this achievement occurred within the framework of multifaceted influences—the work of Muybridge, Étienne-Jules Marey, and others; Edison's own prior accomplishments also shaped their thinking, the process of invention, and the way the developing motion-picture system was initially employed. In the 1870s Thomas Edison had established himself as the businessman's inventor. He was hired to make various improvements on the telegraph for Western Union, Jay Gould, and other financial powers then striving for dominance in the fields of communication and transportation. One of Edison's inventions, the quadruplex, could send four messages over one wire at the same time (two in each direc-'tion), an innovation that saved companies millions of dollars. He also worked on the talking telegraph, or telephone, improving its transmitter and its ability to function over long distances. His most impressive invention in the communications field was undoubtedly the phonograph, and its development and use eventually served him as a model for the development of a motion-picture system.
Edison earned his reputation as an inventor of utilitarian devices employed for the organization of large-scale enterprises.1 Yet even practical communications technology sometimes provided entertainment in mid-nineteenth-century America. In the 1840s Professor James B. Brown and Dr. A. T. Johnson's "Grand Exhibition of Nature and Art" demonstrated the telegraph and a wide range of other inventions, including Colt's submarine battery, the Boston fire alarm bell, and an"Electronome: Or shocking Machine, of great power, for applying Electro-Magnetism to the human body. " In the late 1870s telephone concerts presented "speech, music, imitations &c., over a long wire."2 The musician or elocutionist, who was outside the visible and audible reach of the audience, directed sound into the telephone speaker for reproduction by a receiver in the hall. Always accompanied by lectures that explained the scientific and technical basis of the inventions, such demonstrations revealed one aspect of an "operational aesthetic," which Neil Harris finds characteristic of nineteenth-century American culture.3 This approach focused attention on the structure of some technology or activity in a way that encouraged audiences to learn how it worked. For Americans, exhibitions of this type had become a form of recreation; they were part of a culture of enlightenment that included the illustrated lecture discussed in the previous chapter. Advocates considered them elevating experiences capable of winning citizens away from those rival amusements that were corrupting and base.
The Phonograph Becomes a Source of Entertainment
Insofar as the phonograph provided Edison with a model for his subsequent motion-picture endeavors, it merits careful attention here. When first invented, the phonograph was predictably seen as another communications device with a fundamentally utilitarian purpose. In the summer of 1877, during the course of experimentation at his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory, Edison encountered certain unexpected phenomena that enabled him to invent an instrument for recording and playing back sound. He called this device the phonograph: the term, derived from the Greek, meant "sound writer." As Reese Jenkins points out, he initially explored three different formats for storing the sound information: in two cases waxed paper or tin
foil were wrapped around a cylinder or shaped into a disk, while the third possibility involved a paper tape similar to stock-ticker tape, with which Edison was intimately familiar.4 In the end, he pursued cylinders wrapped in foil. A short time after constructing and testing this novel recorder, the inventor gave a demonstration at the offices of Scientific American.5 The public was amazed, and a whirlwind of publicity culminated in an impromptu entertainment for President Rutherford Hayes at the White House. Almost overnight, Edison became a popular hero dubbed "the Wizard of Menlo Park."
Everyone believed that the phonograph's long-term value was as a business machine. But because it was still too primitive to be employed "for the practical uses of commerce," the instrument was exhibited as a technological novelty. The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was organized in the first part of 1878 to market and exhibit the new invention. James Redpath, founder of a Lyceum bureau in Boston, organized this aspect of the machine's exploitation. Showmen were assigned territories for their exhibitions, which consisted of practical demonstrations accompanied by elaborate explanations: another instance of the operational aesthetic at work. Only a few hundred exhibition phonographs were built; these used tin foil, wrapped around a cylinder, as a recording material. The instrument was hand-cranked, during both recording and playback. Each impression (the stylus making indentations on the foil) could be used only a few times before its quality degenerated beyond recognition. At exhibitions, the phonograph reproduced speeches and natural sounds as well as music. People were brought onstage to speak into the mouthpiece and then heard their voices emanate from a funnel attached to the phonograph.6 As a Massachusetts newspaper reported in 1878:
The experiments were intensely interesting. The operator repeated the juvenile poem,"Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow,"
and immediately as he reversed the crank, it was repeated through a pasteboard tunnel, giving all the inflections of his voice. A cornet player performed several tunes, placing his cornet over the mouthpiece, and they were all repeated with wonderful accuracy. Someone sang in the mouthpiece and the singing was reproduced. Imitations of crowing, barking, cat calls, whistling and singing, were also repeated, affording much mirth (Cape Ann Advertiser, 24 May 1878).
The craze lasted for a little less than a year; once the pool of customers had been exhausted, the novelty failed. Edison then turned his attention to another problem, incandescent light.
After a five-year period during which the phonograph had all but disappeared from commercial use, Alexander Graham Bell and several colleagues unveiled a vastly improved recording system. Tin foil was replaced by a wax-coated cardboard cylinder, and Edison's rigid needle by a free-floating stylus. Impressions were made by "engraving," which meant removing materials from the cylinder rather than simply indenting. The new system utilized much narrower grooves, allowing for more playing time. Acknowledging their debt to Edison, the Bell associates reshuffled the name of his invention and called their own machine the graphophone. They also
sought a commercial alliance with the Menlo Park inventor, but Edison angrily refused and embarked on his own improvements. His "perfected phonograph," although still requiring further refinement before it could function reliably in practical situations, was unveiled in May 1888.7 That spring Jesse Lippincott, a successful industrialist, gained control of the recording industry, first acquiring the marketing rights for the graphophone and then for Edison's phonograph. These rights were dispersed on an exclusive basis among approximately thirty regional subcompanies, including the Holland brothers, who controlled the Canadian territory.8 These subcompanies were to lease (not sell) the machines to their customers for forty dollars a year, exclusive of batteries and other sundries.
The perfected phonograph was expected to fulfill the invention's promise as a useful business machine. Low-paid personnel could simply transcribe an executive's dictation off the cylinder. The new instrument was hailed as "a stenographer which will take with unfailing accuracy from the most rapid dictation, which never goes out to 'see a man,' which is ready for work at any hour of the day, which repeats its notes as often as may be desired, which is never dissatisfied, sick or 'looking for a raise.' "9 It could even do away with letter writing. Businessmen could send correspondence via a phonogram, as these cylinders were often called, and so save the time and expense of having letters typed on still-primitive typewriters. Like the quadruplex and the telephone, the phonograph was meant to increase communication efficiency and decrease the costs of running an office. Yet subcompany managers encountered resistance when they marketed the phonograph as a respectable business machine. Phonograph agents testified to the practical difficulties that inexperienced people had in operating the machine. Managers soon realized that only by using the phonograph as a source of entertainment could they make money.10 This idea took two forms: the phonograph concert and the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph, forms of presentation that paralleled projection and various peephole devices.
Phonograph concerts continued the demonstrations given for the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company. Initially, many of these exhibitions took place in storefronts, sites used by traveling museums and related amusements. During the first part of 1890 Lyman Howe and a partner traveled through eastern Pennsylvania presenting their phonograph in stores and small rooms. Open continuously each afternoon and evening, they gave concerts lasting about half an hour for an admission fee of ten cents. Their varied selections included music, speeches, and on-the-spot recordings of local personalities. These early concerts were "visited by people from every walk in life … and [the phonograph] excited the wonder and curiosity of all who heard it."11 The well-to-do often came more than once.
Concerts given in lecture halls, opera houses, and churches usually lasted two hours or more. As early as February 1889, Edison associates gave a phonograph concert at Commonwealth Hall in East Orange, New Jersey, for the benefit of the Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church. This entertainment, as reported in the Orange Chronicle, also included a lecture on the Moors of Spain illustrated by stereopticon slides. When Howe became a solitary exhibitor in late 1890, he adopted the longer format and charged twenty-five cents for admission. Like Howe, showmen leased (and later bought) their phonographs from a subcompany and then traveled through a designated territory giving exhibitions. According to phonograph showman M. C. Sullivan, these concerts required "all the tact and versatility of the man who manipulates the instrument." He had to introduce each selection in a way that maximized its effectiveness yet melded these individual recordings into a coherent program "governed by the well known laws of dramatic practice." While a concert should have a beginning, middle, and end, it still depended on variety principles for its construction. "Serious incidents," advised Sullivan, "should be of short duration and made powerful. Comic incidents should be numerous and carefully mingled with the serious." Novelty was also important. "Sounds from nature," such as cackling hens and crowing roosters, amused audiences simply because they were incongruous and unexpected in a lecture hall. As a climax to the evening, a local band or minister often performed for the phonograph; the playback always left audiences "awed by mystery and amazement."12
Coin-operated phonographs (the precursor of the modern-day jukebox) became popular during 1890. In February the Automatic Phonograph Exhibition Company was incorporated to "manufacture, lease, use, and sell a nickel-in-the-slot machine by means of which the dropping of a coin in the slot will operate a mechanism which will cause a phonograph or phonograph-graphophone, to produce the sound recorded upon its cylinder." For five cents an individual could listen to a recording through
earphones. By that summer, a dozen were installed at different locations in Richmond, Virginia. The Missouri Phonograph Company placed forty-eight machines in Kansas City and realized as much as fifteen hundred dollars per month.13 The Ohio Phonograph Company found it more profitable to group its machines in arcades. At the second annual convention of local phonograph companies of the United States, James L. Andem, president of the Ohio company, explained:
We commenced putting out the Automatic Company's machines, and confined it to the largest cities, such as Cincinnati and Cleveland. The receipts at first were quite large, but the cost of inspection was very heavy, the cylinders were easily damaged and thrown out of adjustment, and people treated the machines in a pretty rough manner at times. We finally grouped them together in what we call a system of arcades. … We found there that by putting the machines in groups often, having an attendant present to make change and keep the machines in the best adjustment in which they can be kept, the receipts were larger (Proceedings of the Second Annual Convention, pp. 58-59).
A Cleveland arcade was opened with twelve phonographs on 15 September 1890, and another in Cincinnati followed less than two months later. These served as models for the many phonograph parlors (and later, kinetoscope parlors) that soon appeared throughout the country. By June 1891 over a third of the country's 3,200 phonographs were being used as nickel-in-the-slot machines.14 Most others still employed for business purposes, but over the next several years entertainment became their dominant purpose.
The nickel-in-the-slot phonograph and the phonograph concert appealed to antagonistic cultural groups. The first type was located in saloons, hotels, and railroad stations, sometimes offered racy stories, and was occasionally subject to censorship.15 Part of the "slot machine" phenomenon, it was strongly opposed by religious and civic groups as morally corrupting. Not long after its appearance, the nickel-in-the slot phonograph with its multiple users was called a health hazard: infectious diseases were said to spread via the earphones.
By contrast, religious organizations, which frequently opposed the "ordinary phonograph," sponsored phonograph concerts to raise money. (For handling publicity, providing exhibition space, and drawing upon their members and friends, such groups received 30 to 40 percent of the gross receipts.) Commonly located in
churches and presided over by ministers, these exhibitions featured sermons or hymns and involved group participation. In their format and selections, they continued the evening concert tradition of music, song, and recitations delivered by church members with occasional assistance from a visitor. Yet for Edison and the phonograph companies, the nickel-in-the-slot machine was far more profitable. While the Ohio Phonograph Company had over sixty nickel-in-the-slot devices, four phonograph exhibitors covered the entire state.16 Cultural prejudices were forgotten in the face of commercial opportunity, and when Edison sought to extend his phonograph into the visual realm, the inventor developed a method of exhibition modeled after the arcade machine—the peephole kinetoscope.
Edison and the Invention of Modern Motion Pictures
While Edison struggled to turn his phonograph into a viable commercial machine, he "talked up" its myriad possibilities to the press. One possible application had been suggested to him by Eadweard Muybridge, who, it will be recalled, exhibited his zoopraxiscope at the nearby Orange Music Hall on Saturday, 25 February 1888. Two days later, Muybridge met with Edison at his laboratory. There the photographer-lecturer proposed that they combine his projecting machine with the inventor's phonograph. Edison was intrigued. A few months later, a journalist visiting the West Orange laboratory reported:
New York World, 3 June 1888, p. 16">
Mr. Edison said that Prof. Muybridge, the instantaneous photographer, had visited him lately and had proposed to him a scheme which, if carried to completion, will afford an almost endless field of instruction and amusement. The photographer said that he was conducting a series of experiments recently and had almost perfected a photographic appliance by which he would be enabled to accurately reproduce the gestures and the facial expression of, for instance, Mr. Blaine in the act of making a speech. This was done, he said by taking some sixty or seventy instantaneous photographs of each position assumed by the speaker, and then throwing them by means of a magic lantern upon a screen. He proposed to Mr. Edison that the phonograph should be used in connection with his invention, and that photographs of Edwin Booth as Hamlet, Lillian Russell in some of her songs, and other artists of note should be experimented with. Mr. Edison, he said, could produce with his instrument the tones of the voice while he would furnish the gestures and facial expression. This scheme met with the approval of Mr. Edison and he intended to perfect it at his leisure (New York World, 3 June 1888, p. 16).
Perhaps finding some free time a few months later, Edison began to recognize the limitations of Muybridge's techniques. The images were hand-drawn and few in number. In terms of efficiency, reproducibility, and ease of use, Muybridge's system could not compare with his phonograph. Reworking the idea until it became his own, Edison was later to deny that Muybridge had ever shared it with him.17
While Edison wondered what to call his proposed invention, he was determined the name would share the same ending as his phono graph. He first proposed "motograph," but his patent lawyer, Eugene A. Lewis, advised against the mixing of two languages—moto from the Latin and graph Greek. Lewis then consulted ex-governor Daniel H. Chamberlain, who spoke ancient Greek and suggested "kinesigraph." Not satisfied, Edison turned to Webster's Dictionary, found the term kinet or kineto—Greek for "movement"—and adopted it, with the result that the machine to take motion pictures was called a kinetograph and the one that showed them a kinetoscope, derived from the Greek word scopes, "to watch."
For Thomas Edison and his associates, the phonograph provided a familiar frame of reference as they pursued the development of a motion-picture system. As Edison wrote in October 1888: "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion, and in such a form as to be both Cheap practical and convenient. This apparatus I call a Kinetoscope 'Moving View.' " Such parallelism could also prove a stumbling block, however. Edison's initial idea was to have approximately 42,000 images, each about 1/32 of an inch wide, on a cylinder that was the size of his phonograph records. These were to be taken on a continuous spiral with 180 images per turn. The spectator would look at the pictures through a microscope while also listening to sound from the phonograph. Each cylinder would contain twenty-eight minutes of pictures. In March and August 1889 Edison filed two additional caveats that tried to solve some of the problems inherent in his initial formulation. The image surfaces were to be flat, and the cylinders made of glass and wrapped with photographic film.18
Tracing and accurately dating the various stages of invention that finally led to a commercially successful form of motion pictures is no easy task for the historian. As Gordon Hendricks has demonstrated in The Edison Motion Picture Myth, Edison and his associates distorted the record in their efforts to sustain both the inventor's patents and his legend. They testified that Edison's motion-picture achievements occurred years earlier than was actually the case. Newspaper accounts, however, provide a useful source of dating because the inventor, as we have seen with the phonograph, was quick to present his successful accomplishments to the press and prominent members of the public. (Indeed, newspaper accounts were often submitted in patent interference and infringement cases as evidence of an idea's "reduction to practice.") Unsuccessful experiments, such as the various applications of the photographic-cylinder idea, are more difficult to document for several reasons. They did not quickly become part of the public record; later testimony distorted what took place, and many relevant documents were lost or destroyed. Hendricks' exhaustive research, however, has uncovered important clues to the sequence of events and the time frame in which they occurred (even if the author's virulent anti-Edison attitude frequently hampered his ability to offer credible conclusions).
William Kennedy Laurie Dickson Becomes Edison's Motion-Picture Expert
As was the case with other important innovations in motion-picture technology, the kinetograph was the result of a collaboration. Some historians, most notably Terry Ramsaye, have favored Edison's role; others, particularly Gordon Hendricks, have championed Dickson. Similar historiographic differences, as we shall see in the next two chapters, have arisen around the invention of projection technology. The process of invention via collaboration is complex and almost always difficult to document in detail because it relies on the exchange of ideas. The so-called expert may often need the perspective of his or her less specialized partner. The informal process of give and take, the very ability to shape ideas jointly: these are qualities that often yield successful results yet make it impossible to give credit to one member of the team over another. Indeed, the overriding aspect of these inventive processes was the collaborative framework in which they occurred.
In February 1889 the Edison laboratory opened a kinetoscope account, coinciding with the writing of Edison's second caveat. Pattern makers, machinists, and blacksmiths may have spent the next several months building a model that conformed to Edison's idea of a photographic cylinder. Charles A. Brown and W. K. L. Dickson were brought into the kinetograph effort by late June.19 Edison may have chosen Dickson reluctantly, since he was the inventor's key associate on the laboratory's priority undertaking at the time, the iron-ore-milling project, as well as its preeminent photographer. But if Dickson was overcommitted, he was probably the only staff member with the necessary expertise.
Initially, Dickson and Brown were applying the photographic emulsion directly onto the cylinders. As Dickson later recalled, "The photographic portion of the undertaking was seriously hampered by the defects of the materials at hand, which, however excellent in themselves, offered no substance sufficiently sensitive. How to secure clear-cut outlines, or indeed any outlines at all, together with the phenomenal speed, was the problem which puzzled the experimenters."20 Various emulsions were tried, but each was lacking in light sensitivity or had excessive grain for the microscopic images.
During the summer of 1889 Dickson and Brown devoted virtually all their time to the kinetoscope project. After Edison had left for Europe and the Paris Exposition in early August 1889, they constructed a special building for this and other photographic work.21 Soon they were experimenting with cylinders wrapped with celluloid sheets that carried a photographic emulsion—much as Edison had wrapped his original
phonograph with tin foil.22 Three photographic sheets similar to those used for these experiments survive; they show an Edison employee dressed in white, placed against a black background and performing an array of movements or "monkeyshines" for the camera.23 When Edison returned that October, he saw some results from Dickson's cylinder experiments. While these were somewhat disappointing, the inventor himself had a new approach to pursue.
During his visit to Paris, Edison had met Étienne-Jules Marey and become acquainted with the Frenchman's methods of photographing continuous series of images on a film strip that was moved along intermittently in front of a single camera lens. This approach pointed toward a conceptual break from the too-literal application of phonograph-kinetoscope parallels. It sent Edison back to earlier design methods, including the ticker-tape-like method of organizing information that he had briefly considered in 1877 while developing his "sound writer." Shortly after his return, Edison drew up a new caveat for motion pictures that reflected these conceptual advances (which were thus also regressions to earlier methods of design, presumably stimulated by a brief exchange with Marey). "Figure 46 is a Kinetoscope. The sensitive film is in the form of a long band passing from one reel to another in front of a square slit as in figure 47. On each side of the band are rows of holes exactly opposite each other & into which double toothed wheels pass. … Fig 48 gives rough idea of positive feed mechanism of course this principle can be applied to cylinders covered with the photo material as well as in bands."24
Actual production of an instrument based on these principles, however, was almost a year and a half away. Edison and his experimenters were trying to develop a complete kinetograph/kinetoscope system, and Marey's achievements did not seem
to suggest an effective method of exhibition. Dickson, no longer restricted to the cylinder idea, briefly reconsidered the disk method of organizing his images. He turned to the tachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz, a device that displayed a series of fourteen to twenty-four images placed along the edge of a disk in a manner some-what similar to Heyl's phasmatrope. The disk moved continuously, with the images illuminated by a strobe effect. This work occurred in late 1889 and early 1890.25 The cylindrical and circular motifs evident in the phonograph and Muybridge's disks for the zoopraxiscope combined to bar the way to a quick solution. Moreover Edison's return from Paris meant that Dickson and Brown had little time to devote to the kinetoscope, since Dickson now rejoined Edison on the ore-milling experiments.
It was not until October 1890 that Dickson returned to the motion-picture project. This time, he worked closely with a new assistant, William Heise, whose expertise in advancing rolls of paper tape through an automatic telegraph made him a valuable new partner.26 The new twosome briefly pursued the cylindrical experiments but was soon working to develop a horizontal-feed motion-picture camera from Edison's Marey-inspired caveat.27 By then, they were familiar with the work of William Friese-Greene, who claimed to have taken a continuous series of photographs from a single point of view at the rate often shots per second.28 Finally, on 20 May 1891, Edison unveiled a peephole viewing machine to a large group attending a convention of the Federation of Women's Clubs: "They saw, through an aperture in a pine box standing on the floor, the picture of a man. It bowed and smiled, and took off its hat naturally and gracefully. Every motion was perfect, without a hitch or a jerk."29 The person in the film was Dickson (and the description recalls the subject he supposedly showed to Edison on the latter's return from Paris in 1889).
The club members were quickly followed by reporters. Edison claimed that his films were shot at the rate of forty-six frames a second, probably an exaggeration but one that was meant to distinguish his machine from those of competitors like Friese-Greene. "The trouble with all attempts heretofore made to reproduce action and motion by photographs," Edison told a reporter, "was that the photographs could not be taken in series with sufficient rapidity to catch accurately the motion it was desired to reproduce." Edison was excited about the results. "Now I've got it. That is, I've got the germ or base principle. When you get your base principle right, then it's only a question of time and a matter of details about completing the machine." And, the reporter noted, Edison "ran up stairs with the step of a boy" as he prepared to show the machine.30
The films at these May demonstrations were only three-quarters of an inch wide and were taken with a horizontal-feed apparatus rather than the vertical-feed system that would characterize modern motion pictures. Positive filmstrips were made from the original camera negatives. A single row of small perforations ran along the bottom edge of the films (these were inverted, top down, however, as they ran through the camera). Images on the film were circular, a technique common to magic-lantern slides. Different subjects were filmed against black backgrounds in a manner recalling Muybridge's earlier photographs. Several showed James Duncan, a laborer at the laboratory who was assigned to the project as an inexpensive and genial subject; these included a close-up of him smoking a pipe, which was designed to capture his facial expressions. Others were of athletes from Newark, New Jersey. Variety in camera framing and the focal plane were assumed from the outset.31
Edison did not wait for refinements before beginning the process of patenting this work. In June 1891 Dickson and Edison's lawyers started preparing two patent applications for a motion-picture camera or kinetograph, and one for a peepholeviewing device or kinetoscope. These were submitted on 24 August to the U.S. Patent Office, inaugurating a process of review, claim and counterclaim, suit and countersuit that was to last for over twenty years. Similar applications were not submitted to patent offices overseas. While Edison later claimed that this "oversight" was meant to save money, it seems more plausible that he realized that his broad
patent claims would be challenged and defeated overseas, where similar work had already been done and was well known.32
With the basic principles established, Dickson improved the system, adopting wider strips of film that were less susceptible to breakage. In early November, he ordered raw stock that was 1½ inches wide, 50 feet long, and 5/1000 of an inch thick. Already this order was for film of two different sensitivities, one for negatives and another for positive film prints. This order to the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company was not filled until early December—and then only in an unsatisfactory manner, since the emulsion did not stick to the celluloid base. A month later, Dickson was still waiting for usable stock to arrive (such technical difficulties and delays eventually caused him to switch to film stock made by the Blair Camera Company). Meanwhile, Dickson had ordered two lenses for his camera (one "of telescopic character to bring more distant objects clearly and larger to the front … say a horse race 200 to 500 feet off large enough to be clearly defined in a 1" picture") and a third for a viewing device. Rubberized trays and drums were also ordered for developing the film.33
By late 1891 the inventors were well on their way to completing a vertical-feed motion-picture camera. Firm evidence of this, however, did not appear until October 1892, when frames of motion-picture subjects were published in the Phonogram. Two were of men wrestling and fencing; another showed Heise and Dickson standing against a black background and shaking hands for the benefit of the camera. The presentational approach that would characterize most films made for Edison's peep-hole kinetoscope was already evident.34
Commercial Moving Pictures
In October 1892, shortly after completion of the 1½-inch vertical-feed system (the basis for today's 35-mm film gauge), Edison's secretary, Alfred O. Tate, began to arrange for commercial exploitation of the kinetoscope at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. To meet the anticipated demand for film subjects, Edison built a studio at West Orange. Dickson designed the building to revolve on a graphite core in order to follow the sun. Begun in December, the studio was finished in February and was fully outfitted by May 1893. The studio, known as the "Black Maria"—a slang expression for the patrol wagon it was said to resemble—was rarely used at first because the design and manufacture of kinetoscopes experienced many delays. These viewing devices, electrically powered (often by batteries), although outwardly quite simple, could not be taken for granted. They needed to hold and repeatedly present a substantial amount of film without causing significant wear to the pictures. A new prototype for showing the 1½-inch film gauge was not even completed until shortly before its first public demonstration at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on 9 May 1893. For this occasion, a lecture-demonstration was given by George Hopkins of the institute. Afterward members of the audience stood in line and peered into the machine to see Blacksmith Scene, the first commercial-length modern motion-picture subject to be publicly exhibited. Taken in the Black Maria, it showed three men (Edison employees) hammering on an anvil and passing a bottle of beer around as they worked.35
Perhaps after some further adjustments were made in the prototype, Edison contracted
for twenty-five machines in late June. These were not completed until March 1894. Only the prototype was available for possible exhibition at the Chicago World's Fair, and this was too valuable to send.36 Edison was quoted as saying, "I was very anxious to have one on exhibition at the fair but we will not have it finished in time."37 On 1 April, with the completion of the first twenty-five kinetoscopes, Edison shifted his motion-picture business to a commercial entity, the Edison Manufacturing Company (often referred to as the Edison Company). Up until this date, his kinetoscope account showed the following expenses:
|Labor, etc. on twenty-five kinetoscopes||1,227.48|
|Revolving photograph building (Black Maria)||637.67|
The transition from experimentation to production was made easier by continuity in personnel: W. K. L. Dickson remained in charge of the motion-picture business, assisted by William Heise. The approaching completion of the kinetoscopes spurred the Edison group to serious film production. In early January 1894 Dickson filmed Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze: a few days later, on January 9, it was copyrighted as a photograph. This brief subject, meant for magazine publicity, was a close-up of Edison employee Fred Ott against a black background, facing the camera and in the process of sneezing. Other full-length films made during the winter included Amateur Gymnast, showing a Newark athlete doing a backward somer-sault, and The Barbershop, in which a customer gets a lightning-fast shave for five cents. On 6 March Dickson and Heise "kinetographed" the famous Austrian strong man Eugene Sandow, who posed in the Black Maria and then met Edison in lieu of a $250 fee.39 Bodybuilder Sandow represented an ideal of manly physique and strength. For one film, the strong man stripped to a loincloth and assumed an array of positions that showed off his physique. In cinematography as in photography, Dickson had a well-trained eye. His camera framed Sandow just above the knees; against the black background, Sandow's muscular frame drew all of the viewer's attention.
The first films had been made by men, primarily for men, and of men, but these conditions were to change soon after Sandow's appearance. Carmencita, a Spanish dancer who had become a star on the variety stage, did a provocative dance for the camera, twirling so that her dress rose and exposed her legs. As commercial exhibition became imminent, other subjects more appropriate for mixed-sex audiences were made, including Highland Dance, with a couple doing a Scottish fling, and Organ Grinder. The films, which were approximately 46 feet long and shot at approximately 40 frames per second, lasted less than 20 seconds.
Dickson and Heise kinetographed over seventy-five motion pictures in 1894, and virtually everyone drew on some type of popular commercial amusement. Among the many vaudeville and variety performers they filmed were the contortionist Madame Edna Bertoldi, the facial contortionist George Layman, and the Glenroy Brothers, a burlesque boxing team. Professor Henry Welton's animals appeared in The Wrestling Dog and The Boxing Cats. Dancer Annabelle Whitford [Moore] made the first of many appearances in the Black Maria by mid August in Annabelle Butterfly Dance and Annabelle Serpentine Dance. Members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show visited the studio at least four times during the fall, yielding Buffalo Bill, Indian War Council, Bucking Broncho (photographed in a corral to the rear of the studio), and Annie Oakley. Five films were taken of Charles Hoyt's musical comedy A Milk White Flag, including Band Drill and Finale of 1st Act, Hoyt's "Milk White Flag." The latter showed thirty-four persons in costume, which was "the largest number ever shown as one subject in the Kinetoscope."40
Sex and violence figured prominently in American motion pictures from the outset. In fact, such subjects were consistent with the individualized, peephole nature of the viewing experience: they showed amusements that often offended polite and/or religious Americans. Cock Fight was taken close up against a black background that made the roosters stand out. Terriers were filmed attacking rats. Petit and Kessler appeared in Wrestling Match, while Madame Ruth did the hoochiecoochie for Dance de Ventre. Women dancers often wore skimpy attire. Although many of these films appealed specifically to male voyeurism, they also attracted women with brief glimpses of the usually forbidden world of masculine amusement. Given this sexually charged material, kinetoscope exhibitors periodically experienced forms of censorship. In Asbury Park, New Jersey, a summer resort dominated by conservative Protestants, the mayor forbade the showing of Carmencita's dance film. In San Francisco, the Society for the Suppression of Vice had a kinetoscope exhibitor arrested for showing allegedly indecent pictures.41
The methods of film production and exhibition owed much to nineteenth-century photographic practices and, most important, to the phonograph. Phonograph performers were usually placed in a recording studio that isolated them from miscellaneous sounds. Correspondingly, the Maria, with its black walls, eliminated extraneous visual distractions. This dark background also placed its subjects in bold relief in a manner that recalls Eadweard Muybridge's serial views. Neither phonograph nor kinetograph, however, was always restricted to such controlled settings. Some recordings—for instance, church chimes—were made on location, while Dickson and William Heise filmed the tightrope walker Juan Caicedo outside the studio with the wire "stretched in the open air directly north of the building."42 While the kinetoscope has similarities with the viewing instruments for stereoscopic photographs,
its immediate commercial counterpart was the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph. Both kinetograph and phonograph focused on the same types of subject matter, material drawn from America's increasingly vibrant urban popular culture.
Marketing and Exploiting the Kinetoscope
On 1 April 1894, as the kinetoscope business was finally getting under way, Edison hired William E. Gilmore to replace Alfred O. Tate as his business chief. Gilmore became vice-president and general manager of the Edison Manufacturing Company, which handled Edison's motion-picture business over the next eighteen years. (It also manufactured such items as batteries, dental equipment, and later, x-ray machines.) Edison relied on three outside groups to market his kinetoscope and films, the first and most prominent of which was a consortium of entrepreneurs that became known as the Kinetoscope Company. It included Alfred O. Tate, phonograph executives Thomas Lombard and Erastus Benson, Norman C. Raff, Frank R. Gammon, and Andrew Holland.43 Through Tate, they had a long-standing order for the first twenty-five kinetoscopes. These were finally finished in the spring of 1894. Shipped to the Holland brothers on 6 April, the first ten machines were installed at 1155 Broadway in New York City.44 A different film subject was placed in each kinetoscope; these were printed on a translucent film base that provided an excellent surface for the film to catch and soften the light. Manufactured by the Blair Camera Company, this frosted stock was the standard film for all kinetoscopes.
With the opening of the Holland brothers' kinetoscope parlor on Saturday, 14 April 1894, the history of commercial motion pictures began. At twenty-five cents a ticket to see one row of five machines, or two tickets to see all ten, they had netted about $120 by evening, and this before any advertising had appeared. A second kinetoscope parlor followed in Chicago on 17 or 18 May, when the Hollands installed another ten machines at a Masonic temple. The remaining five had a San Francisco premiere on 1 June at Peter Bacigalupi's phonograph parlor.
In its 1 April 1895 statement, the Kinetoscope Company estimated the cost of running a first-class kinetoscope parlor at about five hundred dollars a month:
|Manager and attendants||140|
|Electricity and lights||75|
Gross receipts through 1 April 1895 were $16,171.56 for its New York parlor and less than half that amount, $7,409.84, for the one in Chicago. Other exhibitions run by the group were of a more temporary nature. One in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and another in Washington, D.C., for example, were located in phonograph parlors owned by the Columbia Phonograph Company, which was also responsible for their operation. Atlantic City receipts fluctuated between $73.75 and $193 a day in July 1894; the Kinetoscope Company kept 55 percent, while Columbia assumed many expenses.45
Edison initially sold kinetoscopes and films to a variety of customers for $250 a machine. Purchasers included Thomas L. Tally (whose family owned a phonograph parlor in Los Angeles although he was then based in Waco, Texas) and Walter Isaacs, both of whom would later play significant roles in the film industry. Kinetoscopes were often placed in summer amusement parks, such as Eagle Rock in Orange, where the novelty had its New Jersey commercial debut on 8 July 1894. It soon became apparent, however, that unrestrained, disorganized exhibition threatened to harm effective marketing, and in mid-August the Kinetoscope Company, headed by Norman Raff and Frank Gammon, was granted exclusive rights for selling regular kinetoscopes within the United States and Canada. They agreed to purchase approximately ten machines a week from Edison for $200 apiece: they then sold these for between $325 and $350 each. The Raff and Gammon partnership sold kinetoscopes only with territorial restrictions—a method similar to that previously employed by the North American Phonograph Company.46
The Edison Manufacturing Company gradually built relations with a second group headed by Franck Z. Maguire and Joseph D. Baucus, who made their first purchases in mid July and subsequently opened a kinetoscope parlor in Brooklyn. That September they acquired the exclusive rights to sell and exhibit the kinetoscope overseas—so long as they worked the territory to Edison's satisfaction. They were expected to dispose of thirteen machines per week for six months and eight machines a week thereafter. Incorporating the Continental Commerce Company for overseas activities, the partners operated from an office at 44 Pine Street, New York City. Their European activities commenced 17 October 1894 with the opening of a kinetoscope parlor in London that took in between seventeen and eighteen pounds a day. By early November, they had kinetoscopes operating at four other locations in the city. As Maguire wrote to Edison at the time, the invention was being treated "in the most friendly and enthusiastic way" by the British press, and arrangements were quickly made for openings in other European cities.47
A third group, eventually called the Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company, was started by Otway Latham, who managed the Tilden Company, a pharmaceutical business with offices in New York City. On 16 May 1894 he deposited $1,000 toward the purchase of ten kinetoscopes, each costing $245.48 He soon enlisted the aid of his brother, Gray; his father, Woodville; and an old college friend and fellow Tilden Company employee, Enoch J. Rector. They wanted to show films of prize fights—an idea Edison had mentioned in the press but one that had not been realized because of the kinetoscope's limited capacity for film. It may have been Otway Latham who proposed a solution: to expand the kinetoscope's capacity so that it could show 150 feet of film and slow down the rate of taking exposures to 30 frames per second. Running time was thus increased to slightly more than a minute, allowing each machine to show an abbreviated boxing round.
The first subject for the Latham-Rector enterprise was a six-round boxing match between Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing. The fighters, after waiting all week for a clear day, traveled to the Black Maria on Friday, 15 June. Dickson and Heise filmed the event, which received immediate front-page publicity in the New York papers. Leonard, a popular pugilist, received $150, while his rival got $50. According to the New York World,
The rounds were to last one minute only. That was necessary as the kinetograph could not be arranged to work more than one minute at a time. There were to be six rounds and between each round the men were to rest seven minutes while the men in charge of the kinetograph prepared it to receive new impressions (New York World, 16 June 1894, p. 1).
The papers did not report the fight's outcome, the World explained, because "Mr. Edison and the six wise men were too excited to remember just what happened, and the accounts of the two fighters vary." The uncertainty was clearly designed to encourage boxing afficionados to pay sixty cents to see the fight—ten cents a round—and learn the results "first-hand."
In July, Otway Latham and Enoch Rector officially changed their May order from ten regular to twelve large-capacity (150-foot) kinetoscopes. In early August, Latham paid the Edison Manufacturing Company $700, enough for the first six machines. Another $450 payment in mid August may have been for the films, which would have enabled them to open their parlor at 83 Nassau Street and exhibit The Leonard-Cushing Fight. Meanwhile, Latham and Rector found a major new source of financing in their employer, Samuel Tilden, Jr., who was heir to a large fortune left to him by his uncle, a former governor of New York. In mid August, Otway Latham placed an order for seventy-two special kinetoscopes at $300 a machine, not including films and batteries. The next set of six was to be delivered in early September, and the third, two weeks later.49
New financing allowed the group to produce a more ambitious subject of international interest. They arranged a fight between heavyweight champion James Corbett, then appearing in the Broadway play Gentleman Jack, and New Jersey pugilist Peter
Courtney. The champion was purportedly guaranteed $5,000 if he could knock out Courtney in the sixth round. The fighter also signed a royalty agreement that proved even more profitable: he was to receive $150 per week (later reduced to $50) for each set of films on exhibition in the kinetoscopes. The bout came off on 7 September as planned. Corbett delivered a knockout blow in the sixth round and newspapers reported the event in great detail. Prize fighting, however, was forbidden in New Jersey, as in the rest of the country. Perhaps because this kinetoscope fight involved the heavyweight champion, a knockout, and extensive publicity, Judge David A. Depue in Newark started a grand-jury investigation. Edison was subpoenaed but denied any involvement or knowledge of the event—even though his presence was reported in the press. The matter was eventually dropped, and Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (better known as The Corbett-Courtney Fight) achieved wide popularity.50
The Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company opened its second parlor at 587 Broadway in New York City. On 14 September Rector inspected the finished machines at the West Orange laboratory, prior to their expected delivery that afternoon, and by 23 September, the enlarged kinetoscopes were in operation. The parlor soon had to shut down, however, since, as Latham explained in a letter to Gilmore, the films were "breaking as fast as we put them on." This mechanical problem was quickly solved, however, and the Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company went on to open parlors in Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco, after which the machines went on tour. Arrangements were also made with Maguire & Baucus for exhibitions overseas. Despite these initial successes, Otway Latham displayed few organizational skills and his conflicting instructions soon strained relations with the Edison firm, with the result that he was removed as manager. The exhibitions nevertheless proved popular and profitable—at least for Corbett. By August 1896 he had received $13,307. Even after projection caught on, the films remained in use, and Samuel J. Tilden, Jr., was forced to keep paying Corbett: the final sum exceeded $20,000.51
The Edison Manufacturing Company enjoyed great prosperity in the year following the introduction of the peephole kinetoscope. From 1 April 1894 through 28 February 1895, motion picture sales totaled:
Profits came to $85,337.83. The three groups were responsible for approximately 80 percent of these sales. By the end of February 1895 Maguire & Baucus had purchases totaling $71,810.44; Otway Latham and the Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company, $14,270.45, and the Raff & Gammon and Kinetoscope Company people, $57,536.66. This last group's gross profit on sales through 15 March was
For the following business year (28 February 1895-1 March 1896), however, total sales for Edison's film-related business fell to $49,896.03 and profits to $4,140.94;
while kinetoscope sales remained substantial into the spring of 1895, they slumped precipitously that summer and never recovered.52
With the approaching winter of 1894-1895, production activities declined but included Fire Rescue Scene, a spectacle with smoke effects that showed firemen saving a family from its burning home, and Chinese Laundry Scene, a shortened vaudeville routine in which a "Chinaman" eludes an Irish cop through an impressive display of acrobatics. The latter film, featuring the two Italian performers Robetta and Doreto, was an early attempt at ethnic comedy. Filmmaking picked up briefly in early spring with scenes taken from plays (Quartette from Trilby), musical revues (James Grundy from The South Before the War), and Barnum and Bailey's Circus (Dance of Rejoicing with Samoan Islanders, Princess Ali). Once sales declined, however, filmmaking was again curtailed. To encourage new activity, the wholesale price for kinetoscopes was cut in May to $127.50, with machines retailing for not more than $250. In fact, this did little to spur business. Another flurry of film production occurred in late August and September as Raff & Gammon employee Alfred Clark was assigned responsibility for making new subjects. Several were historical, including Joan of Arc and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, which Heise shot outdoors near the West Orange laboratory. The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots used "stop-motion substitution" to show the decapitation of Mary (played by Robert
Thomae, secretary and treasurer of the Kinetoscope Company): just before the beheading took place, the camera stopped, Thomae was replaced by a dummy, and the filming resumed. When the two takes were spliced together, the interruption was not evident to the spectator and appeared as one continuous shot. This stop-motion substitution, along with the depiction of historical subject matter, were significant innovations; even so, Clark's film subjects commanded only modest sales, and very few additional pictures were made in the following months.53
Edison and his associates tried to revive their motion-picture business in April 1895 with the introduction of the long-promised kinetophone, combining kinetoscope and phonograph. The spectator looked through a peephole viewer and listened
simultaneously to a recording through earphones. Subjects were usually dances or musical numbers, which required only loose synchronization. Pictures were rarely if ever made especially for the kinetophone. The only surviving exception, usually identified as Dickson Experimental Sound Film, was never shown commercially. Taken in the Black Maria, it shows Dickson playing the violin as two men dance. Kinetophones began to be sold for as much as four hundred dollars, but the demand was small and only forty-five had been made by early 1900.54
Edison's motion-picture business faced multiple difficulties by summer 1895. Maguire & Baucus encountered serious competition in England, where Robert W. Paul was making duplicate kinetoscopes and his own original films, and these activities were safe from legal action because of Edison's failure to patent his motion-picture inventions overseas. While the Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company continued its operations, its attempts to take films of another championship fight were repeatedly frustrated. Raff & Gammon's orders declined not only because the novelty of kinetoscope motion pictures was fading but because, as Raff wrote to Dickson in January 1896, "other parties got out machines and sold them at low figures."55 The principal domestic imitation was made by Charles E. Chinnock, a former Edison associate. On the market by early 1895, these Chinnock kinetoscopes were placed in the Eden Musee and other amusement centers. Raff & Gammon were eventually forced to sell machines for one hundred dollars apiece (seventy dollars wholesale), which greatly reduced their profit margin. Volume also dropped, and late in the business year there were months when they did not sell a single machine.
The declining kinetoscope business was reflected in personnel changes. W. K. L. Dickson, increasingly disenchanted with his situation at the Edison laboratory, left the inventor's employ in April 1895, and Alfred Clark returned to the phonograph business late in the year. James White and Charles Webster, who had worked for the Holland brothers and then exhibited their own kinetoscopes, sold their machines. White also reembraced the recording industry, while Webster took Clark's place at Raff & Gammon.56 With Raff & Gammon ready to sell or even liquidate the Kinetoscope Company, Edison's motion-picture novelty might have suffered the fate of the tin-foil phonograph—had it not been rescued by projection.