Today in History

Today in History: August 31

Edison Receives Patent for Kinetographic Camera

Edison Kinetoscopic Recording of a Sneeze
Edison Kinetoscopic Recording of a Sneeze,
copyright January 9, 1894.

View the film which was reconstructed from the paper print.
Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze
by W. K. L. Dickson, one of Edison’s assistants,
January 7, 1894.

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 a time.

The Black Maria, Edison's first motion picture studio
The Black Maria, Edison's First Motion Picture Studio,
West Orange, New Jersey,
used between December 1892 and January 1901.
Inventing Entertainment: the Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

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 Edison Motion Pictures collection of 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 not for motion pictures. Therefore, a number of early film producers protected their work by copyrighting paper contact prints (paper prints) of the film's individual frames. By the time that the law was amended in 1912, some 3,500 paper prints had been deposited for copyright registration. 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.

sample frames from Edison film 'Three acrobats'
Three Acrobats,
Thomas A. Edison, Inc.,
copyright March 20, 1899.
The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920