1659 – Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens invents the magic lantern, an early still image projector. In the 1790s, the popularity of the magic lantern leads to the first Phantasmagoria: a theater production invoking magic and mystery, in which frightening images of ghosts, skeletons, and demons fill the walls or appear in clouds of smoke. The Phantasmagoria remains a popular draw for over a century.
1872 – Leland Stanford hires photographer and traveling showman Eadweard Muybridge to settle a $25,000 bet: does a galloping horse ever take all four hooves off the ground? Muybridge lines up a row of cameras alongside the horse’s path and captures a sequence of images that, when viewed in quick succession, created the illusion of movement. Viewers call the phenomenon, “a magic lantern gone mad”.
1888 – Muybridge continues his photographic work and brings his traveling show to New Jersey, where he meets Thomas Edison and discusses combining Edison’s phonograph with Muybridge’s pictures, combining sound and image into a new medium. Edison employee W.K.L Dickson is assigned to spearhead the project.
1889 – Inspired by Muybridge, French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey develops a camera that takes pictures on a strip of perforated photographic film. Intrigued by Marey’s innovation on display at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, Edison returns to New Jersey with a new idea: use photographic paper perforated with sprocket holes to guide the film through a new camera. Edison and Dickson demonstrate their new invention, the Kinetoscope, with a simple, flickering short film: Dickson waving his hat.
The first Kinetoscope “peep show” parlor opens on Broadway in New York City in 1894. Dickson and his production crew rush to keep up with audience demand, producing over 75 peep show snippets by the end of the year. The content includes dances, boxing matches, blacksmithing, strongmen, cockfights, and stripteases.
1895 – In France, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière propose projecting moving pictures before a large audience, rather than one person at a time. The Lumières develop a hand-cranked camera and projector called the Cinématographe, more flexible and less jumpy than Edison’s electric-powered Kinetoscope. The Lumières screen nine short films in a Paris café in December 1895. Within a few months, Lumière theaters spring up in London, Brussels, and Brooklyn.
1900 – Edison hires machinist Edwin S. Porter, who becomes America’s first true filmmaker by using movies to tell stories, not just portray scenes. Produced in 1903, Porter’s twelve-minute narrative film THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY utilizes composite editing, camera movement, and location shooting, and is touted as “absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made”.
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY is a smash hit, inspiring entrepreneurs across the country to build movie emporiums known as nickelodeons: theaters able to seat as many as one hundred spectators, for the admission price of a nickel. By 1908, there are nearly 5,000 nickelodeons across America.
Meanwhile, immigration brings the future movie studio moguls to America:
- Adolph Zukor, future founder of Paramount, immigrates from Hungary in 1888. Zukor visits a penny arcade and sees Edison’s short film THE KISS, sparking an interest in film. Using his earnings as a furrier, Zukor buys Kinetoscope parlors with a partner, Marcus Loew.
- Carl Laemmle, future founder of Universal, arrives in Chicago from Germany and sees the audiences drawn to nickelodeons.
- The four Warner brothers (Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack) arrive in Ohio from Poland. Inspired by the nickelodeons, Sam convinces his brothers to enter the business. The brothers buy a projector, accompanied by a print of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, and take the film on the road.
- After a childhood spent in poverty, Hungarian immigrant William Fuchs changes his name to William Fox and enters the picture exhibiting business.
- Louis B. Mayer, an immigrant from Russia, leases a rundown burlesque house, names it The Orpheum, and begins screening films. After working as an exhibitor, Mayer is inspired to join the moviemaking industry.
Unhappy with filmmakers skirting his copyrights and evading royalties, Thomas Edison forms the Motion Picture Patents Company (aka the Edison Trust). Edison sends enforcers to movie sets and theaters, intent on destroying any productions he can’t control. Other filmmakers and exhibitors aren’t easily intimidated and form their own companies to battle Edison’s. Carl Laemmle and William Fox take Edison to court. In 1915, the U.S. government declares the Edison Trust an illegal monopoly. The trust is dismantled in 1918.
Early movie production was centered in New York (and Fort Lee, NJ, for location shooting), but by the turn of the century filmmakers began exploring the country for new locations, low labor costs, and freedom from trust enforcers. Inspired by its varied geographical range and constant fair climate, the moviemakers head west to Los Angeles, and a nearby rural suburb called Hollywood.