The surviving 3-second snippet of Dickson Greeting (1891) shows a slim, neatly dressed young man with a mustache. He’s in the midst of bowing politely to the camera, about to pass a straw hat from one hand to the other. We barely have time to register his image before the clip ends. But brief as it is, we still get a hint of this young man’s self-assurance.
The young man is William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson (he often shortened it to “W.K.L. Dickson”), and he wasn’t merely the subject of a very early, quasi-experimental film. He’s one of the most significant pioneers of the cinema. Let me be even more clear: he’s one of cinema’s giants, an enthusiastic innovator who helped shape the movies as we still know them today. And we know this not so much from his own recorded words, which became obscure over the years, but because research in recent decades revealed just what an important figure he was.
So allow me to introduce you to this young man.
He was born on August 3, 1860 to Scottish parents James Waite Dickson and Elizabeth Kennedy-Laurie, “at the old chateau of St. Buc, Minihic on the picturesque River Rance near Dinan, France”–a town not far from the famous Mont St. Michel. He was the second youngest of five children and the only boy. His insistence on using both his parents names show a pride in his heritage. He claimed his father’s side was related to the artist Hogarth and one of the judges who delivered the final sentence to Charles I, and that his mother’s side had connections to the Royal Stuarts and was related to the Lauries from in the “Annie Laurie” ballad. Throughout his life he went by William Kennedy Laurie or W.K.L., sometimes adding a hyphen–at work he was usually just “Dickson.”
Not much is known about Dickson’s childhood, but he would recall European travels and a well-rounded education including everything from science to music (all the Dickson children were well-educated, and his sister Antonia was a musical prodigy). He would claim to have certificates from Cambridge, meaning he would’ve passed their examinations for Greek, Latin, philosophy, and mathematics. While there’s no record of a W.K.L. Dickson being enrolled in Cambridge, there is an unaffiliated “Dixon” who took the examinations in 1877. His father would pass away some time in the late 1870s, after which the Dickson family moved to England.
The teenaged Dickson was keenly interested in the latest technologies, working on various gadgets like electric switches and telephones. He likely got the idea of working for the famed American inventor Thomas Edison after reading the Paris newspaper Figaro, which published the article “This astonishing Eddison [sic]” in 1878. It extolled Edison’s wondrous inventions like the “aerophone” and his luxurious but busy life, where his company had “men in its employ who do not quit him for a moment, at the table, on the street, in the laboratory.” Edison’s lab was renowned for its teamwork approach to making inventions and it was a place of cutting-edge machinery, strong work ethic, long hours, and an abundance of camaraderie. Researcher Margaret Julia Hames called it “the only pure research and development company in the world at that time. These were arguably ‘dream jobs’ in the American work environment…”
Impressed, 19-year-old Dickson wrote a letter to Edison in February 1879 describing himself as “a friendless and fatherless boy” and made his case: “I have not your talents, but I have patience, perseverance, an ardent love of science, and above all a firm reliance on God. I have no pride, and would willingly begin at the lowest rung of the ladder, and work patiently up, if by doing so, I might hope to attain independence and repay my widowed mother for the care and affection which she has lavished on me for so many years…I am neat handed and inventive, and have already constructed, or attempted to construct…an electric bell, worked by two Bunsens, two Micro Telephone transmitters, a couple of switches, four Leclanches, etc.”
The response was prompt, but Edison merely informed Dickson he wasn’t hiring and had plans “to close my works for at least 2 years, as soon as I have finished experiments with the electric light.” Disappointment wouldn’t keep Dickson down for long, however, since he and his family had already decided to move to the U.S. Sadly, not long after the Atlantic voyage Dickson’s mother passed away from an illness. Perhaps this strengthened his resolve to one day “make good.”
Eventually he and his sisters ended up in New York City and Dickson tried to contact Edison again, finally sending a frank letter to his secretary Samuel Insull: “Having called several times and finding you out I took the liberty of writing you to ask you to make an appointment with Mr. Edison for me so that I can present a letter of introduction & have an interview with him some day this week that he may have a few moments of leisure.” This time persistence paid off and twenty three-year-old Dickson, in the year 1883, was finally an Edison employee.
Dickson’s new workplace was the Testing Room of the Edison Machine Works, located practically underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The neighborhood was rundown at the time and the shop itself was “grim of aspect, not over clean…” Despite the humble surroundings Dickson took to his new job quickly, enjoying the collaboration with colleagues like Nicola Tesla. The current focus in the shop was on electric generators, which they called “dynamos,” and often they were supervised by Edison himself, whose work ethic (and little need for sleep) was legendary. Edison’s fame also meant the shop occasionally hosted celebrity visitors–Dickson remembered Chief Sitting Bull and several members of his tribe stopping by one day.
Dickson was a good fit for the Edison laboratory, being hardworking, full of ideas, and meticulous about completing tasks to the letter. In a few months he was the Testing Room supervisor, the start of his tenure as one of Edison’s top associates. While workdays sometimes turned into 16-hour marathons he also managed to indulge his interest in photography, frequently photographing the Edison company. By the late 1880s, this interest came in handy when Edison, inspired by the pioneering work of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules-Marey, put Dickson in charge of working on a moving picture camera.
After a few years of experimentation, Dickson and his team found that celluloid film strips–newly available from the Eastman company–were the best medium for moving pictures. One early machine involved running 19mm film horizontally through the camera, taking circular images much like an iris shot. But Dickson soon hit on two gamechanger ideas: putting sprocket holes on each side of the film strip, to feed more smoothly through the camera, and using a 35mm width for the film itself (many early film strips were either wide or quite slim and often had one row of holes down the middle). And thus 35mm film with a 1:33:1 ratio became the standard format that we still use today. Several film tests, now referred to as Monkeyshines 1 and 2, survive only as extremely blurry and wobbly copies but no doubt were exciting milestones for Dickson and company.
The finished result was the famed 1892 Kinetoscope, basically a “peep show” where a viewer could put in a coin, look into a lens and view a short film, which ran on vertical strips illuminated by flashes of light too quick to bother the human eye. This new novelty was a runaway success, with some small storefronts in the cities even transforming themselves into “Kinetoscope parlors.”
The Edison company personally fed the demand for films, recruiting employees and local entertainers to perform–sometimes awkwardly, but often charmingly–in front of the camera. Dickson himself was happy to make frequent appearances, such as in the famed Dickson Greeting (1891), the first American film shown to an audience (a meeting of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, hosted by his wife Lucie).
Since filming conditions in the Edison lab weren’t ideal, especially when it came to getting the right amount of daylight, Dickson decided to design what became the world’s first film studio, the Black Maria (a slang term for a paddy wagon). Resembling an unwieldy shed with multiple additions, it was covered in black tarpaper, had a roof that rose up and down, and rotated on a railroad turntable to get the maximum amount of sunlight throughout the day.
Dickson would describe the funny structure in joyfully florid terms–or as Terry Ramsaye put it in his book A Million and One Nights, “the Super-Victorian that can be achieved only by a really impassioned Englishman”:
“No dungeons are these, thrilling with awful possibilities, but simply a building for the better taking of kinetograpic subjects…No department of the wizard’s domains is more fraught with perennial interest than this theatre; none are more interwoven with the laughter, the pathos, the genius and the dexterities of life. No earthly stage has ever gathered within its precincts a more incongruous crew of actors since the days when gods and men and animals were on terms of social intimacy; when Orpheus poured his melting lays into the ears of the brute creation, and gentle Anthony of Padua lured the suffering beasts to the mouth of his desert cave…”
Dickson was confident–or simply knew–that he and his colleagues were creating technologies that would change the world. He predicted a dazzling future for the clacking machine that took such simple films in the Black Maria:
“What is the future of the kinetograph? Ask rather, from what conceivable phase of the future can it be debarred…It is the crown and flower of nineteenth century magic, the crystallization of Eons of groping enchantments. In its wholesome, sunny and accessible laws are possibilities undreamt of by the occult lore of the East, the conservative wisdom of Egypt, the jealous erudition of Babylon, the guarded mysteries of delphic and Eleusinian shrines. It is the earnest of the coming age, when the great potentialities of life shall no longer be in the keeping of cloister and college or money bag, but shall overflow to the nethermost portions of the earth at the command of the humblest heir of the divine intelligence.”
There was a prophetic nature to some of his writings, even foreseeing the rise of Internet streaming:
“The invalid, the isolated country recluse, and the harassed business man can indulge in needed recreation, without undue expenditure, without fear of weather, and without the sacrifice of health or important engagements. Not only our own resources but those of the entire world will be at our command. The advantages to students and historians will be immeasurable.”
Quick to keep innovating, Dickson would also be the first to direct and “star” in Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894), which featured a live recording. Dickson’s shown playing “Song of the Cabin Boy” on a violin into a huge megaphone while two coworkers dance with each other nearby. (In the 19th c. it wasn’t uncommon for men to dance together if no women were around, so their dancing may have been a joke about the long working hours with exclusively male colleagues.) In general he was in charge of directing the actors who appeared in front of the cameras, strongly influencing the Edison company’s cinematic offerings.
In a time when “patent wars” were ongoing and competition over various inventions was fierce, Dickson was keenly interested in credit for his innovations but kept running up against the Edison company’s corporate atmosphere. He published a brief book on the Kinetoscope (yes, between his heavy work schedule and photography hobby he also wrote several books, helped by his sister Antonia) which focused mainly on his own accomplishments. This caused Edison to complain in a letter to a friend: “I have given Dickson full credit for his labors in my manuscript letter, and I object to lugging in outside things in a Kinetoscope book. Mr. Dickson will get full credit for what he has done without trying to ram it down peoples throats.”
Around this time Dickson was also secretly collaborating with the Latham brothers, who had been puzzling over how to project longer motion pictures without the film breaking. Dickson helped them find a solution: the “Latham loop,” or slack loop in the film. This, combined with Edison’s hiring of William Gilmore to oversee the filming department, lead to shaky relations with Edison and in 1895 Dickson left the company.
He continued to devote himself to film, joining the Latham brothers to create the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company which would one day make so many early film classics. He would be a forerunner of the newsreel photographer, travelling abroad to film the Boer War and taking the first films of a pope, then Pope Leo XIII (who also blessed his camera).
Dickson’s employment with Biograph ended around 1911, and as the years went by his accomplishments began to be forgotten. He, his wife and sister Antonia lived out their days quietly in Twickenham, England and he would pass away in 1935 at age 75. It wasn’t until later decades when books by Gordon Hendricks and especially by Paul Spehr rescued William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson from obscurity, pointing out his rightful place in history. He may not ever be as well known as Edison, but to lovers of early cinema this hardworking, tenacious young man was certainly one of the “Fathers of Film.”
Hames, Margaret Julia (2011) “”I Have No Pride”: William Kennedy Laurie Dickson In His Own Words – An Autobiography,” Proceedings of the New York State Communication Association: Vol. 2010, Article 6.
Ramsaye, Terry. A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture. London: Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., 1926.
Spehr, Paul. The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson. United Kingdom: John Libbey Publishing Ltd., 2008.
Toulet, Emmanuelle. Birth of the Motion Picture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.