The History of Moving Images: The First Thousand Years

The ten-minute documentary above has film historian Deac Rossell explaining the significance of the brothers Lumiere.

300s BC: Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti and Greek philosopher Aristotle describe the principles behind the pinhole camera, a precursor to the camera obscura. Both inventions are essentially boxes with a hole in one side; when light shines through it is reproduced upside-down on a surface with color and perspective intact.

1021: The scientist Ibn al-Haytham writes the Book of Optics in Cairo where he describes how it is possible to project an image from outdoors onto a screen indoors using a camera obscura and multiple light sources rather than just one.

ca 1600: The Italian playwright Giambattista della Porta adds a convex lens to the camera obscura, showing how light spreads through the lens, sort of like an eye.

the 1650s: The magic lantern is invented, most likely by Christiaan Huygens. It has a concave mirror that projects light through a slide with an image painted on it. When the light hits a lens the image is shown enlarged on a screen. As stronger lamps are invented over the years, the effect greatly increases.

1822: The world’s first still photograph is taken by the Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (the nature scene to the left was photographed by him three years later). Building on a realization made by Johann Heinrich Schultz in 1724 that a mixture of silver and chalk darkens under exposure of light, Niépce and Louis Daguerre comes up with a way to fix the image permanently. The art of photography developes rapidly over the century.

Later 1800s: Moving pictures are shown in several devices that throw light into a box containing a series of images inside a spinning cylinder. When the cylinder moves the images come alive. The zoetrope is first, followed by the praxinoscope.

1879: The British photographer Eadweard Muybridge invents the zoopraxiscope, which has been called the first movie projector, projecting images from rapidly rotating glass disks. The picture to the left is a moving reproduction of stills taken by Muybridge.

1887: Hannibal Goodwin, an Episcopalian minister, patents a method for making roll film out of nitrocellulose film base.

1889-1892: Thomas Edison’s staff, led by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, develop the Kinetoscope, a device showing motion picture by conveying a perforated film strip of images over a light source with a high-speed shutter, and the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera. The Kinetoscope uses Goodwin’s cellulose roll film.

1893: William Dickson constructs the “Black Maria”, the first motion picture studio, which consists of a single room where a section of the roof can be opened to admit sunlight. Hundreds of short films are made there until April 1895, including the one above, Blacksmith Scene (1893). Like so many other short subjects from this period, it’s a simple recording of a simple event. But the “Black Maria” is also the scene for various performances, vaudeville turns and comedy bits.

1894: The first commercial exhibition of motion pictures takes place in New York City, using ten Kinetoscopes. Fred Ott’s Sneeze (to the left) is filmed by William Dickson. The first movie to be copyrighted in the U.S., it is now in public domain.

1895: Auguste and Louis Lumiére introduce the cinématographe, a motion picture camera that records, develops and projects films. Its first movie is the 47-second piece Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (above), one of ten subsequently shown at a public event in Paris that year. All films produced by the Lumiéres are in the 35 mm format. Meantime, William Dickson starts the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in the U.S., the first American company entirely devoted to the production and exhibition of movies. It builds on the Mutoscope invention (a peep-show motion picture device patented the previous year) and becomes a rival to Edison’s Kinetoscope. The Vitascope, a prototype of modern film projectors, is invented by Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat; it is subsequently sold to Edison.

1896: The Lumiéres’ 50-second-long The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station shows audiences the shocking effect of a close-up. The camera doesn’t move and there is no editing; the train does all the work. The first public exhibition of projected films (using a Vitascope) takes place in New York at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall. The Latham loop is patented by Woodville Latham, which makes it possible to shoot and project films for a longer period than, say, one minute by isolating the film strip from vibration. It’s a groundbreaking invention, soon used in every projector.

Sources: “A History of Narrative Film” (David A. Cook), Wikipedia.

Published by Stefan Hedmark 2010-10-02 19:03

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