The birth of cinema

Magic lanternists and other screen projectionists were not immediately able to take advantage of the invention of photography. Instead, they had to wait for the discovery of processes that enabled photographic images to adhere to glass surfaces – and that happened in the late 1840s with the development of albumen and collodion processes. This in turn lead to the creation of the stereopticon – a projector of photographic images.

Screen projectionists and spectators must have felt this was a process well worth waiting for when they saw even the early results of being able to project photographic images: Never before had images so detailed, crisp and true-to-life been seen projected on screen. Even the real-life reflective images of the camera obscuras had lacked clarity and detail of the kind made possible with the creation of the stereopticon. Interestingly, too, while the move away from belief in witchcraft and ghosts must have meant lessening fear at magic lantern shows, it seems likely that while ‘the screen had [before the stereopticon] been associated with the phantasmagoria’s mystery and magic… the application of photography to projection provided the lantern with a new scientific basis’ and status (Musser 32), as it could now be clearly seen to accurately represent reality rather than created visions.

Another important change heralded by the stereopticon was the increased standardisation of images made possible by the move away from hand-painted slides to photographs that were, of course, replicable. This is important to the development of standardised products with which we’re today so familiar – such as both collections of projection slides and the narrative feature films we know so well.

Still, the stereopticon did not replace the magic lantern, as the latter still offered the illusion of movement and also a range of luminescent colours and unreal images that photography could not provide. In that sense, the stereopticon and the magic lanterns existed happily side-by-side as different types of projection screen methods, each with their own attractions. Additionally, of course, the magic lantern anyway developed in a somewhat different direction after the invention of cinema – changing its context of use and paving the way for the emergence of slide projectors.

Almost as soon as the stereopticon enabled the projection of photographic images on screens, people started to think about ways in which to project moving photographic images – doubtless inspired by already-established moving picture devices such as the Phenakistiscope and the Zoetrope, which used spinning discs or drums to give the effect of a single moving image. There were, however, a number of technical difficulties to be overcome before this breakthrough took place, not least of which was the slow exposure time and wetness of the most sensitive medium, collodion.

In the late 1870s, however, ‘the faster and more convenient gelatin bromide dry plate’ was developed and marketed, thus enabling ‘the revolutionary achievements of Edweard Muybridge (1830-1904), an English émigré [to the United States] who had already created a reputation as a photographer when he was commissioned by Leland Stanford, the railroad king and governor of California, to take “instantaneous” photographs of his racehorses, to establish whether a horse has all four feet off the ground simultaneously at a certain stage of the trot’ (D Robinson 14).

An interesting aside in this history is that Muybridge’s work was interrupted by his trial for the murder of his wife’s lover! Fortunately for the development of moving pictures, he was acquitted of the crime on the grounds of justification and resumed his groundbreaking work in the early 1870s. As a result of Muybridge’s advances in that decade, Thomas Edison finally overcame the technical problems around sequencing successive frames and created the Edison Kinetoscope – that is, the first “peepshow” device to display moving images on celluloid film.

The Kinetoscope

The kinetoscope by Thomas Edison

While the Kinetoscope was obviously a huge breakthrough in terms of the development of cinema as we know it, in itself it had no capacity to excite showmen who operated with large screens and with projectors: the images in peepshow devices were not projected – in fact, they were only available to one viewer at a time, which was of little interest to those engaged in entertaining the masses with life-size projected images. However, Edison purportedly had no plans to change things. He was unwilling to work on projecting his moving photographic images, worried about the commercial damage that would do to his Kinetoscope sales!

Unsurprisingly, though, a whole host of keen inventors worked on the “problem” of projecting moving photographs on screen, and the mid-1890s saw the development of such projection machines in France, Germany, the United States and England. The impetus for these inventions was at least in part commercial, as evidenced by the fact that the Latham family – who were already showing fight films in an ‘oversized kinetoscope’ – ‘became convinced that projection would enhance their exhibition business’ and as a result built their Eidoloscope (Musser 91). The fact that this was a commercial move to create a far more efficient method of exhibition, and was motivated also by audience desires, is strongly supported by Woodville Latham writing on 4th December 1897 that ‘…one of my sons came up to me and asked if I could not devise a machine for projecting pictures upon a screen’ and said that ‘a number of spectators in his hearing had expressed a wish that something of that sort might be done, and subsequently I heard from spectators myself, similar expressions’ (cited Musser 92).

Edison did give in and created his own “screen machine,” despite not wishing to do so. Presumably he realised that in the end it was what the public wanted – and would pay good money to see! His Vitagraph projector premiered commercially in New York on 23rd April 1896, where the projection screen for the occasion was ‘lowered from the flies’ and ‘set in an elaborate gilt picture frame’ (D Robinson 63).

The Cinematographe and the birth of cinema

The cinematographe meant the birth of cinema

It was, however, in France that the first motion picture projector had been created and publicly demonstrated – when Auguste and Louis Lumière projected photographic celluloid film onto a screen using their Cinematographe machine on 22nd March 1895 in Paris. Then, on 28th December 1895, they exhibited and demonstrated the Cinematographe for a paying audience at the Grand Café in Paris. Crucially important to a history of projection screens are anecdotes from this historical screening of L’arrivee d’un train en gare de la Ciotat (The arrival of a train into a country station) – a screening that famously caused a commotion. As one contemporary commentator, Georges Reyes, famously tells it:

“Suddenly a train appeared. Women cried out with terror. Men threw themselves to one side to avoid being run over. It was panic. And triumph.”

Continue to the next chapter in projection screen history: from the origins of cinema to the 1940s