From Magic Lanterns to “Fred Ott’s Sneeze”–Cinema Begins

A warm welcome to all readers of the Classic Movie History Project blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen and sponsored by Flicker Alley! Over the next three days many talented bloggers will be covering every year of the movies, and I’m proud to be part of it. I hope you enjoy my post as well as all the other wonderful contributions this weekend!

From Magic Lanterns to “Fred Ott’s Sneeze”–Cinema Begins

The Year 1880

Imagine, if you will, a world without cars. A world without electric appliances. A world where the countryside isn’t zigzagged with electric wires. A world without computers, laptops and phones (this may be difficult if you’re reading this on a smartphone). Try hard to really picture it.

Image result for 1880 main street

Imagine houses that were much quieter than they are today. Imagine the noise of cities, with hundreds of horseshoes striking the roads. The smell of the horses themselves is too ordinary, too everyday, to comment on.

Image result for 1880 main street usa

Imagine you are one of the people in that world, in your clothes that emphasize good posture–maybe you’ve had your portrait taken in such an outfit, carefully posed. And imagine having no idea how quickly the world was about to change. The change would happen slowly at first, and then gain speed in the coming decades. There would be so many marvelous inventions, so many innovations. And the one that would arguably be most influential on popular culture is something you haven’t even dreamed of–the motion picture.

Magic Lanterns and Other Curiosities

Optical illusions had been familiar entertainments for many generations. Long before the Victorian era there were magic lanterns–early slide projectors–which probably dated back as far as the Middle Ages.

By the early 19th century there were various toys and amusements like the thaumatrope, a spinning disk with two different images on either side which appeared to morph into a single picture, and the zoetrope, a cylinder with images painted on its inside and slits to look through as it spun to create an animation.

All these curiosities knew the secret of mimicking motion: in flip book style. But this motion was isolated to drawings and paintings. Only a photo could ever capture a real life image.

That is, until someone put two and two together and realized that if a series of photographs was taken of a subject quickly enough, the motion of real life itself could be captured. And that’s when the game changed.

Muybridge and The Horse in Motion

Now, as we know nothing gets developed in a bubble. Cinema came together in pieces, with many studious people learning from and building upon the discoveries of others–a better quality projector here, a faster shutter there. Average Joe probably knows that Thomas Edison had a big hand in the invention of the moving picture. Less Average Joe might have heard of Louis Le Prince, who took the earliest motion pictures that we have. And Not Remotedly Average Joe nods his head wisely at the mention of Eadweard Muybridge.

Eadweard Muybridge, who shared the same plane as those parents who spell their kids’ names Caytlynne and Jourden, spent several years in the 1870s figuring out how to take successive photos of a subject in motion. Supposedly the reason for this was to help businessman Leland Stanford settle a bet. Much like today’s debates on whether Batman or Superman would win in a fight, a popular question back in the buggy era was, “Does a horse have all four feet off the ground while galloping?”

Muybridge proved the answer was “yes” this way: he set up a row of 24 cameras along a track with threads attached to their shutters; as a horse galloped down the track it triggered each shutter; he took the images, turned them into silhouettes, and animated them with his zoopraxiscope (a projector he invented himself). And thus Sallie Gardner at a Gallop or The Horse in Motion became the clearest early ancestor of silent films. While its “animated” style wasn’t terribly different from other magic lanterns, the fact that it used real photographs to illustrate a real motion was.

A proud Muybridge gave a presentation of The Horse in Motion at the California School of Fine Arts in 1880. Little did he know that he was helping launch something that would transcend its use as a scientific tool and pave the way for an art form.

Chronophotography and E-J Marey

Cinemphiles might know the name of Muybridge, but the name of Étienne-Jules Marey can sometimes fall through the cracks. But the French scientist is an important figure in early (ancient?) film history, thanks to his gun. Chronophotographic gun, that is.

Marey studied blood circulation, respiration and muscle movements, especially of animals and insects. He was a lover of precise details, making very delicate models of insects to show how they flew. Gradually he became fascinated by the idea of capturing real-life, specific movements, such as the flapping of a bird’s wing or the way a cat can land on all fours. His theories on whether a horse had all four feet off the ground when it galloped caught the attention of our friend Eadweard.

In 1882, with the help of assistant Georges Demenÿ, Marey created a special gun-shaped camera that could record 12 frames in a second–all on the same picture. This ethereal effect is just as striking today as it was in the 19th century. He used this camera gun in his nature studies in Naples, Italy (the befuddling sight of Marey aiming this gun at birds but never shooting earned him the title of “The Silly from Posillipo” from the Naples locals).

Marey and Demenÿ concocted a way to put chronophotographs on long strips of special paper. These “films” (as we would think of them today) were captured at 20 frames per second. They would later switch to a better base–transparent celluloid film. But another Frenchman would beat them to that punch: Louis Le Prince.

The “Father of Cinematography”

In 1888, the fancily-named Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince patented a stubby wooden box of a movie camera. It used strips of film George Eastman had invented for his Kodak still cameras. In October of 1888 Le Prince made two films that we know of: Roundhay Garden Scene, possibly his first film and definitely the oldest surviving motion picture in the entire world, and Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge.

The era of cinema had truly begun. D.W. Griffith was only thirteen at the time. Charlie Chaplin would be born the following year, Lillian Gish would be born five years later, and it would be seven years before the birth of Buster Keaton.

Le Prince planned a public exhibition of his marvelous machine, but honest-to-gosh mysterious circumstances intervened. On September 16, 1890, he got onto a train to Dijon, France, intending to visit his brother before heading to the UK to patent his new invention…and was never seen again. This has never been explained, although theories have ranged from fratricide to, uh, death by Edison’s orders.

Ah yes, it’s time that I tell you about…

Edison and the “Kinetoscope”

So around the time cinema was being developed, Thomas Edison and talented assistant William Dickson were noting all the developments and working on a motion picture camera of their own. Not only were they inspired by Muybridge’s work on The Horse in Motion (and possibly attended one of his lectures), but Edison had even visited Étienne-Jules Marey to check out his chronophotographic gun while on a trip to Paris. The only thing Edison didn’t do was meet Le Prince, although he was aware of him.

In November of 1890 Dickson perfected the “Kinetograph,” using Eastman film and small motor that pulled the film through the machine with gears that hooked onto sprocket holes.

It was used to make the first U.S. films ever: Monkeyshines, 1 followed by 2 and 3, which were purely to test the device. Monkeyshines, 2 was later known as the famous Dickson Greeting (1891), only a few seconds of which survive today.

Edison followed up with the famous “kinetoscope,” where a few seconds of a lady dancing or boxers boxing could be viewed in a machine for a few pennies. In 1893, he built the world’s first movie studio in West Orange, New Jersey. It was a rotating metal box of a building that was dubbed the “Black Maria.”

Edison was not only a brilliant inventor but a smart businessman; he knew motion pictures were going to be huge, and Edison was not only going to get a piece of that pie but bake the whole pie himself. He and Dickson swiftly patented their inventions, along with patents for just about everything motion picture-related.

Back then, the competition for these patents was fierce. So fierce, that there’s even a theory out there that Le Prince’s disappearance was the work of “Edison’s hired goons.” This seems paranoid to me–gee, if he was actually that evil why not knock off more competitors while he was at it? Prince’s widow apparently had suspicions, but there has never been any concrete evidence that Edison had anything to do with Le Prince’s death (and probably never will be, just to be clear). But the fact that this theory even exists does show how bitter the rivalry between the motion picture inventors was, and how aware they all were of the immense importance of cinema very early on.

Cinema is Unleashed

December 28, 1895, is one of the most important dates in film history. That is the date when Auguste and Louis Lumière had the first public exhibition of their moving pictures in Paris.

The brothers, who were given a piece of Kinetoscope film by their father and encouraged to get in the new picture business while it was hot, devised their own camera and went to work making films. They held several private screenings of their work in 1895, which lead up to the anticipated Big Public Screening in December.

There they showed ten films, each roughly 50 seconds long. The most well-known of these was L’Arrivée d’un train engar de la Ciotat (1895), or The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. People really did shriek and duck at the sight of the train apparently speeding toward them. Another film was L’ Arroseur arrose (1895), or, The Sprinkler Sprinkled–the earliest “slapstick comedy” film ever made.

Prior to this, cinema had been an entertaining curiosity, a scientific tool, and one of those fascinating new modern inventions. Both Georges Méliès and Alice Guy-Blaché attended Lumière screenings in 1895, and instantly recognized that it could be something more–mass entertainment. Historic events could be reenacted. Fantasy worlds could be shown. Exciting stories could be told. There were endless possibilities.

After 1895, films would get longer, involve more than one shot, and the art of editing would be discovered. A mere two decades later, there would be epic feature films, comedy series, movie stars, and the inklings of Hollywood. Griffith would release The Birth of a Nation, masterfully utilizing all the techniques that many filmmakers were tinkering with at the time. The “movies” were here to stay.

Early Films Themselves

So far we’ve discussed some of the important figures involved in creating the motion picture itself, but what sort of films were being made back in this period, 1880-1895?

They were simple, simple films–busy city streets, workers at work, stage dancers showing off their moves, musicians playing their instruments, studies of animals.

Carmencita (1894).

The thrill for audiences was seeing a picture that had come to life, like something you might daydream while gazing at family photos on the wall. It was seeing a moment in time captured and replayed, something that had never been done before at any point in history. It was a cutting-edge novelty. Not even the magic lanterns could touch it

Blacksmith Scene #1 (1893)

These films–usually not more than a minute long, and often far less–were novelties intended for exhibitions, kinetscope parlors, carnivals, and the like. Eventually they would be considered cheap entertainment for the working class before growing in stature to rival, and perhaps surpass, the “legitimate” stage.

Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894)

What marvelous images there were to come–fairies finding babies in cabbage patches, rocket ships striking the Man in the Moon. Such images had a incalculable impact on the public’s imagination.

And what a perfect time it was, back in the late 19th century, for motion pictures to arrive. The world was changing quickly, and cinema was not only a major part of that change but was a firsthand witness to it all, preserving it for future generations–like us.


Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.
Cousins, Mark. The Story of Film. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004.
Croy, Homer. How Motion Pictures Are Made. New York and London: Harper & Brother Publishers, 1918.
Ebert, Roger, ed. Roger Ebert’s Book of Film. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1997.

Random facts that stick in my head

43 thoughts on “From Magic Lanterns to “Fred Ott’s Sneeze”–Cinema Begins

  1. Fascinating stuff, it’s sad how often people play crucial roles in inventions that change the world but are themselves forgotten.

    Edison certainly seems to have been a pretty ruthless chap – I think I read something once that suggested that one of the reasons for moving production from New York to California was to get away from his goons?

    • There were other inventors I would’ve like to mention too, who were even more obscure. Inventing the cinema was almost a group effort, in a sense!

      I’ve heard that about Edison being pretty ruthless, too. I don’t know a whole lot about his various business practices, but I do know that a lot of the “backlash” about Edison has to do with Tesla’s sudden rise in popularity lately–probably due to this comic strip on The Oatmeal: The strip itself has a lot of hyperbole and distortions. Anyhoo, ruthless or no, it wouldn’t surprise me if Edison wasn’t terribly different from other successful businessmen at the time. The 19th century could be a harsh place at times.

      • Well, Edison was rather ‘wild’ when doing things. Unfortunately, he often lost track of what he invented until ‘too late’ a number of times. Anyway, we all know him for the LIGHT BULB, but he was specially proud of the phonograph (he was hard of hearing) and upon doing up the Kinetoscope he then turned it into the Kinetophone. People could hear and watch but only 1 at a time. As he eventually realized, the screen brought in more people at one time, he tried to control it all. However, a bit too late. One company that really ‘got around’ Edison was Biograph. They beat him by not using the usual (patented) pre-made sprocket holes as their cameras literally punched a round hole on the film as it was being shot. As a result, only Biograph films could be shown on Biograph projectors! Another aspect was when the day rapped up, if the floor was not swept overnight, during the next day the camera could be placed in the exact same spot since the little circles dropped like confetti and would show exactly where the camera had been yesterday! The Pathe Cameras were also ‘go arounds’ as Edison was not able to control their instruments. Anyway, growing up in No.NJ, I know dear ole’ West Orange, his home, very well. Metuchen (surrounded by the township of Edison in NJ) is the place of a lot of his work as well. Ironically, over the years, I worked in all three places!

        PS THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (made by Edison Company) was filmed basically where the Rockaway Mall is now located just off Route 46! 😀 NJ was the ‘original’ Hollywood as it was, then very rural, and the Edison hired NY Detectives could not really find where the movies were being made!! So, he eventually joined in aa he could no longer control filmmaking overall.

      • Edison stole a copy of Melie’s “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) and paid no royalties on all of the US showings. According to… I’m pretty sure it was Karl Brown (Griffith’s cameraman) … Pinkertons hired by Edison and the patent collective took pot shots at filmmakers in Hollywood as they crossed the Cahunga Pass around 1911 (the modern day 101 between the Hollywood Bowl and Warner Bros., also a location for “Birth of a Nation”).

    • Thanks, Joe–it’s true, too! So much silent era info sticks in my brain, usually in place of more practical things like “what day is my credit card bill due,” but there you are.

  2. Thanks so much for joining with the intro to early and pre-cinema! Aren’t those early Edison Black Maria shorts intriguing? I wonder what historians will think of our little YouTube videos in a century or so.

    • You’ve got to wonder…can’t help thinking that some incredulous snickering might be involved. Maybe there’ll be a fleet of historians talking about the “purity of the early YouTube era”? 😛 Thanks again for hosting!

        • Ha! And discussing whether later Nyan Cats, with buttered toast bodies or celebrity heads or whatever, constitute as ripoffs or as homage (with much explanation as to the historic context of YouTube parodies, of course). 😀

  3. Great piece of history, and I love how you presented it.

    The early footage is fascinating, isn’t it? I think my fave is The Sneeze. I don’t know what it is about it, but I could watch it over and over.

  4. Excellent essay, Lea. It was a pleasure to read it. When you wrote that the first motion picture was in 1888, five years before Lilian Gish was born, I couldn’t help thinking that in 1888 one of my favorites actors, George Arliss, was 20 years old!

    • You know, it always blows my mind to see the senior actors in silent films and realize that many of them had been born in the 1850s or 1860s. Imagine, some of them had been around during the Civil War!

      • Time does move on. I get really fascinated that I am NOW just about as old as the Silent folks were at the time I met them ‘way back.’ A number of the ones, from the school (Columbia HS) I was Librarian at are now older than I was when they were students! Thus, the calendar goes forward . . .

        • Happy to know I’m not the only one! Some of the oldest actors could’ve crossed paths with veterans of the American Revolution when they were little…you never know!

  5. I so love reading about this topic. Imagine the audience’s excitement! You did a wonderful job. I used to have a boss named Fred Ott and always thought of t hat little film when I said his name. I don’t think I ever saw him sneeze, though….

  6. Wow! My knowledge on the Silent Era is close to negligible, so this article was very enlightening for me. I also love the humour in your articles, they are as easy to read as it is to see! Looking forward to your follow up articles. 🙂

    • Well, this retire Librarian, would like to also offer you some volumes that will surely give deep insight as well. they are OLD but could give you a great deal of info and broad perspectives. A fine over view is *Classics of the Silent Screen* by Joe Franklin (actually it was written by Robert Osborne of TCM when he really young) c1959 Citadel Press. A voluminous picture book is *A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen* by Daniel Blume c1953 Grosset & Dunlap – will give you incredible 3 of pix on 325 pages! Going back to the DEEP past of movies is *Archeology of the cinema* by C.W. Ceram c1965 Harcourt, Brace & World. Though now l-o-n-g out of print, I am sure via Amazon and other ‘old book’ sites/places you can find them. Of course, there are a ton of others – probably have a bunch of them myself – but I figure, if possibly able to fins, they will give you are really fine and deep perspective of the early history of the Pix. Though as now retired, this longtime educator still teaches classes and lectures about the oldies, whenever possible. Lastly, if nothing else, do please be sure you get a chance to view *Sunrise* my all time favorite!!! I am planning upon showing it to students this coming Fall at a seminar course on, of course, GREAT Movies. Tidbit – Despite all the official listings, *Sunrise* was the FIRST BEST PICTURE at the Academy Awards! *Wings* won BEST POPULAR Picture whereas *Sunrise* was honored with BEST ARTISTIC Picture!

      • Thanks for the recommendations! I’m always on the lookout to add more film history books to my collection. I’ve heard of the Pictorial History, it sounds like an image goldmine. Hmmm… *goes to poke around in the Abe Books site* 😉

      • I was always intrigued that Joe Franklin wrote a book about silents….but now I’m even more intrigued that Robert Osborne wrote it! I’ve been meaning to seek it out anyways, but will do even moreso now!

    • Thanks for the invite! I will take a look at what I have planned; something specific is in store for August, but we’ll see what I can do!

  7. Wonderful! Although I have learned about most of these pioneers via documentaries, I think I never had heard of Marey so far – but I do remember some gun-camera in one point of history!
    It was a fascinating article on a fascinating topic, congratulations.
    And I must point the film industry has loved sequels since the beginning – I mean, Monkeyshines 1, 2 AND 3?
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    • Thank you! Yes, come to think of it, I could do a whole piece on how “Hollywood sequels aren’t QUITE as recent an invention as you’d think.” 😀

    • p.s. Since your blog doesn’t seem to be allowing me to comment, I’ll say here that I thought your blogathon post incredibly informative and useful–just the sort of info I appreciate! Kudos to you for all the hard work you put into it!

  8. Just a nitpick most of the world is unaware of: Edison did not invent the light bulb, he invented one that lasted more than a few minutes. While I am convinced Edison had no involvement in Le Prince’s death, Edison was not above electrocuting an elephant with Tesla’s alternating current to prove Edison’s DC current was much safer. Edison made a film of the pachyderm execution and it was one of his earliest box office hits. I can’t find the passage now, but I have read Edison became involved with motion picture development to add visuals for his phonograph. You would think it had been the other way around.

    By my estimation 70% of all silent film comedy is lost, yet the very first silent film comedy, “L’ Arroseur arrose”, still exists.

    • Speaking of Edison vs. Tesla, I have a theory that if Tesla looked more like Edweard Muybridge than a dashing young inventor he probably wouldn’t have as many fans. 😉

  9. Pingback: A Little Tour For New Readers | Silent-ology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s