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The Mists of Time: The Chicken Or The Egg? or What You Think You See Is What You Get

Emile Reynaud's Praxinoscope
Emile Reynaud’s Praxinoscope

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The verdict is in on that one. It’s the egg.

Which came first, movies or photography?

Scientists were studying the psych-neurological phenomenon of “persistence of vision” early in the 1830s, ten years before chemists made photography practical. We’ve included a picture of one of the early devices — the Praxinoscope — that demonstrates that advancements do not always require multi-million dollar labs, large staffs of highly credentialed scientists, and exotic materials. Advancements have often been made by ordinary people using what is at hand (provided that what you need is at hand.)

The following time-line, adapted from the American Film Institute Desk Reference, might help to guide you back through the mist, to when gentle folk lined up to see the new marvels from the inventors’ benches.

Step right this way … Before your very eyes …

1831 – Physicists Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry discover the principle of electromagnetic induction. Eventually, this will make electricity that can power motion picture equipment. Until then, movie cameras will rely on someone cranking them by hand, often not at a steady pace.

1832 – The Phenakistiscope — or the Fantascope — emerges from the mind of Joseph Plateau, a Belgian inventor. The Fantascope uses a series of drawings on a rotating disk in front of a mirror to produce an apparently moving image.

1834 – A British inventor, William George Horner, unveils his version of the Fantascope, the Daedalum, or the Zoetrope. It uses drawings on a rotating drum to provide the illusion of a moving picture.

1839 – Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invents the daguerreotype, a process for producing positive images on copper plates. His design builds on the work of chemist Joseph Nicéphore Niepce.

1841 – William Henry Fox Talbot takes Daguerre’s work a step further. He develops a process for printing negative photographs on paper. He does not call it talbototype.

1869 – John Wesley Hyatt invents celluloid. It’s the first commercially successful plastic and, although he doesn’t put any images on it, it will eventually be inseparably linked with motion pictures.

1872 – A photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, focuses on animals in motion and uses his zoöpraxiscope to project them. In the process, he helps to settle the question of whether all four of a galloping horse’s hooves ever leave the ground at the same time. (They do.)

Fred Ott's Sneeze, a film by William K.L. Dickson, 1894
Fred Ott’s Sneeze, a film by
William K.L. Dickson, 1894.

1876 – Further refinements of the Zoetrope come in the form of Emile Reynaud’s Praxinoscope.

1879 – Thomas Alva Edison patents the light-bulb, consisting of an incandescent carbon-filament in an evacuated glass tube. (This outshines Joseph Swan’s similar invention the year before, which Swan failed to act upon quickly enough.) Eventually, light-bulbs will be integral to film projectors … and to bright ideas in general.

1882 – Etienne-Jules Marey gives meaning to the phrase “shooting a picture” with his photographic gun. Its revolving multi-chamber disk can take 12 pictures a second.

1889 – George Eastman, one of the founders of the Eastman Kodak Company, invents perforated celluloid film, which Thomas Edison and W.K.L. Dickson use in their Kinetophonograph, a device that synchronizes film projection with recorded sound.

1891 – Edison takes his Kinetophonograph a step further with the Kinetograph camera and a peep-show (not in the naughty sense) viewer, the Kinetoscope.

1893 – Edison builds the “Black Maria,” the world’s first film studio, in New Jersey. It is here that the blockbuster, “Fred Ott’s Sneeze,” is produced. In nearby Brooklyn, Edison demonstrates the first motion picture, showing blacksmiths at work. (The blacksmiths are actually actors pretending to be blacksmiths, since apparently real blacksmiths are too expensive.)

1894 – An amusement arcade in New York City hosts Edison’s Kinetoscope. Ten machines show a series of films, none of them naughty, although one of them does show people dancing.

1895 – Movie projectors advance with several improvements, the Cinématographe from Louis and Auguste Lumière; the Latham Loop from Woodville Latham; and the Phantascope from Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat.

1896 – Commercialization of motion pictures moves ahead when the Edison Company buys the rights to the Phantascope and renames it the Vitascope; it’s used to show movies in New York. Meanwhile, Albert E. Smith and Stuart Blackton form a movie production company similarly named Vitagraph. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company — later known as simply the Biograph Company — develops its Biograph projector.

1897 – Raoul Gromoin-Sanson invents a panoramic multi-screen projection system using ten synchronized projectors. He calls it the Cineorama. Meanwhile, movie production continues with the Biograph company making movies on rooftops and Vitagraph producing the first fictional film, the Burglar on the Roof. This fascination with roofs will continue much later with cats and fiddlers.

1898 – Nickelodeons — they charge a nickel — open across America, showing movies, while Edison files a patent-infringement suit against the Biograph Company. It won’t be the last time lawyers cash in on the movie industry.

1899 – The movie industry expands to Britain, where Cecil Hepworth begins producing films, and to Japan. None of the Japanese movies feature giant lizards stomping on Tokyo.