Film is such a significant and omnipresent part of modern life that it is difficult to imagine an era with “motion picture shows.” That is one of the reasons that I have long found the early years of film making so fascinating. Once motion picture technologies were developed, they evolved quickly leading to the rise of the silents and beyond. In this blog post, however, I want to bring us back to the earliest public introduction of moving images and the first time people from the Chemung Valley would have encountered this radically transformative medium.
In 1894 Thomas Edison and his assistants introduced the kinetoscope to the American public. When he patented the invention years earlier, he named it from the Greek "kineto" meaning "movement" and "scopos" meaning "to watch." Edison wasn’t the first to experiment with this technology, with Eadweard Muybridge and his Zoopraxiscope notably coming before. However, his invention was the first to have such a public impact.
|A Kinetophone- A kinetoscope combined with phonography technology, circa 1895|
A kinetoscope is a personal film viewer. A person looked through a peephole in the top of the machine as a film strip on a spinning wheel passed over a light. Kinetoscope parlors popped up in major cities and individual machines would pass through other areas as a kind of traveling curiosity. Businesses in Elmira first hosted kinetoscopes in September of 1894. The Water Street carpet and drapery shops of Albert Samuel and T.S. Pratt both advertised their temporary possession of one of these new machines for public viewing. The machine was also displayed at the Chemung County fairgrounds. By 1897, the Elmira Telegram asserted that almost every man, woman, and child in Elmira had probably encountered a kinetoscope. An article explained the technology behind the moving images to those who doubted what they saw through the viewers.
In addition to creating the viewing machines, Edison and his team made many films from their "Black Maria" studio in New Jersey. Many of the early kinetoscope films were targeted at male audiences, meaning they featured boxing matches and “salacious” ankle-showing dancing girls (literal “peep shows”). While these sights would be considered tame by today’s standards, they did cause quite a bit of controversy when they were introduced. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union protested the violence of the boxing films and were successful in getting those kinetoscope films banned in a few states. Watch some of the early films below:
Film technology has clearly progressed from the kinetoscope days. Just a few years after the kinetoscope’s introduction, the advent of projection technology turned film from an expensive curiosity into a mass culture phenomenon. Still, in an era of HD, 3D, and whatever technology is soon to come, it is interesting to reflect on our cinematic roots and appreciate the pioneering work of late 19th century inventors.