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Lumière, Auguste and Louis


LUMIÈRE, AUGUSTE AND LOUIS. Contrary to common beliefs about the invention of motion pictures, Auguste Lumière (1862–1954) and Louis Lumière (1864–1948) were not the first to devise and project moving images on a screen. However, their synthesis of late-nineteenth-century discoveries by Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), Émile Reynaud (1844–1918), and William Dickson (1860–1935, under Thomas Edison [1847–1931]), to name a few, resulted in the Cinématographe, the most practical and ingenious motion picture camera and projector.

A deceptively simple box of wood and copper, the Cinèmatographe weighed in at ten pounds, making it a truly portable combination camera, contact printer, and projector. Edison's camera, the Kinetograph, weighed more than 1,100 pounds. It was impractical for shooting outside away from an electrical power source. Edison filmed in his West Orange, New Jersey, studio, known as the "Black Maria," while the Lumières' hand-cranked camera filmed life in the streets.

On 28 December 1895, barely thirty-five passers-by braved a glance at the Cinématographe's first public film projection in the converted billiards room known as the "Salon Indien" of Paris's Grand Café. Each customer paid a franc and watched enthralled as flickering black and white images were projected: a group of workers leaving the Lumière photography factory in Lyon; Auguste Lumière feeding his baby daughter; a boy stepping on a garden hose—to our delight and the dismay of the gardener. The entire program, with time out to change the fifty-second reels, lasted fifteen minutes.

The receipts for the evening were not even enough to pay for the room rental and the hired help, but word of mouth would change that the very next day. No major daily newspaper covered the event, but a local gazette, Le Radical, exalted: "We have already recorded and reproduced spoken words. We can now record and play back life. We will be able to see our families again long after they are gone."

Within days, lines trailed down the Boulevard des Capucines. The Lumière Company raked in 2,500 francs a day by mid-January 1896. From 1896 to 1900, the Lumières earned 3 million francs (the equivalent of approximately $20 million in 2006). Not bad for "a simple scientific curiosity," as Antoine Lumière had described his sons' invention to prospective buyer Georges Méliès (1861–1938).

Both Auguste and Louis Lumière were born in Besançon, France. They were close throughout their childhood growing up in Lyon. During a vacation on the Brittany coast in 1877, they built a portable laboratory and darkroom and vowed that they would work together in the future. Auguste received a diploma in chemistry; Louis, at sixteen, earned top honors in math, drawing, and chemistry.

By Louis's eighteenth birthday, Antoine Lumière's photography company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Louis and Auguste convinced their father to let them take over the business, and within a year they had righted the situation. Louis Lumière invented an instantaneous photograph known as "extra-rapides à etiquette bleue" which would remain on the market for eighty years and make the Lumières wealthy.

In fact, by 1890, the Lumière factories in Lyon were the largest manufacturers of photographic products in Europe, second only in the world to George Eastman in Rochester, New York. Edison's Kinetoscope, devised for viewing 35 mm Kodak filmstrips shot with a motion picture camera that Dickson invented for Edison in 1893, was commercialized in Paris in the summer of 1894. Louis and Auguste Lumière were amused by the projections that were confined to a box designed for a single viewer, but the Lumières were determined to capture motion and project it on a screen.

Both brothers suffered from terrible migraine attacks. It was supposedly during one painful sleepless night that Louis Lumière thought up a means of advancing film through the camera with a hand

crank mechanism similar to the foot pedal on a sewing machine. He built a prototype camera, applied for a patent for it on 13 February 1895, and in March, filmed the workers leaving the factory. A few days later on 22 March, the Lumières presented their film to a group of scientists in Paris. Throughout that year they perfected the camera and named it the Cinématographe from the Greek words for "to write with movement." Jules Carpenter, an engineer, worked with them and eventually built the Cinématographe in quantity. A dozen cameras were ready by March 1896, and Louis Lumière began training cameramen to be sent around the world. Within two years, Lumière cameramen filmed some 2,000 shorts in most corners of Europe, Africa, Asia, and South and North America.

Two theaters flourished in Paris where people were amazed to see the sights of the world without budging from their chairs. Within two years, however, the novelty wore off and audiences dwindled. Meanwhile, Méliès, Charles Pathé (1863–1957), and Léon Gaumont (1864–1946), who had all begun producing fictional films, were forging France into the world's leader in motion picture production, a distinction it would hold until World War I.

Louis Lumière dreamed up other inventions. A wraparound screen twenty feet high and sixty-five feet in diameter enveloped visitors to the 1900 World's Fair in Paris with Photorama views of European cities. Lumière had devised a carousel-shaped still camera with a revolving lens that covered a 360-degree field of view. There were daily Photorama viewings in Paris for two years thereafter.

Auguste and Louis Lumière both worked night and day to create a color photo process. By 1905, experimenting with potato flour and dyes, they had invented the Autochrome, a photograph broken into little colored dots like a painting by Georges Seurat (1859–1891). By 1914, the Lumière factories were manufacturing 6,000 Autochrome plates a day. They also built a special projector for Autochrome glass slides. Louis Lumière naturally saw the possibilities for color motion pictures, but the large grain and the lack of sufficiently sensitive film delayed a practical process until the early 1930s.

Louis Lumière patented a speaker for phonographs and radios made from corrugated paper. During World War I, he invented and patented an artificial jointed hand for disabled veterans as well as a catalytic gas heater that was installed in airplanes and many apartments. He devised a stereoscopic photo process in the 1920s that resembles later holograms. In 1935, Louis invented a stereoscopic 35 mm movie camera. Viewers had to wear glasses with one blue lens, the other green, to view the 3-D movies.

As for Auguste, the study of biology took precedence in his professional life. As soon as x-rays were discovered in Germany, Auguste Lumière began similar experiments in Lyon, and was the first in France to use x-rays for medical research. Later he built his own pharmaceutical company, developing homeopathic remedies and inventing a nonsticking bandage that is still sold today.

Louis Lumière died in 1948, a few years short of seeing a 3-D process similar to his own refined and commercialized in the United States. Auguste Lumière died in 1954 at the age of ninety-two.

The Lumière brothers, like Edison, were great industrialists and proselytized the cinema (to-graphe) worldwide. That certainly helps explain why their names are remembered and not those of Marey, Reynaud, or Dickson. For the Lumière centenary celebration in 1995, the Banque de France printed approximately seventeen million 200 franc notes with the Lumière brothers' effigy on it. However, in a rare showing of posthumous retroactive political correctness, the French government recalled the bills and destroyed them when a public outcry accused the Lumière brothers of collaborationist activities in Lyon during the German Occupation. Gustave Eiffel replaced the brothers on the 200 franc note while Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) replaced Eiffel on the 100 franc note; of course, the rest is monetary history, since barely six years later, France converted to the Euro.

See alsoCinema; Fin de Siècle; France; Méliès, Georges.


Aubert, Michelle, and Jean-Claude Seguin. La Production cinématographique des Frères Lumière. Paris, 1996.

Chardère, Bernard. Les Lumière. Paris, 1985.

Musser, Charles. The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. New York, 1990.

Rittaud-Hutinet, Jacques. Le Cinèma des origines: les frères Lumière et leurs opèrateurs. Paris, 1985.

Sadoul, Georges. Lumière et Méliès. Paris, 1985.

Sauvage, Léo. L'affaire Lumière: du mythe à l'histoire: enquête sur les origines du cinéma. Paris, 1985.

Glenn Myrent

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