Posted by David Kalat on January 14, 2012
The inventor steps aboard the train, and loads the packing crates that contain his most wondrous device. It will revolutionize the world. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the very birth of the modern age. The inventor takes his seat—it will be a few hours from Leeds to Paris, his old homeland. Although the inventor has been living and working in England, he is French in his blood, and it is in France that he must tie up some last loose ends.
The competition has been fierce. He has not been alone in working on such a device. His is still embryonic and needs improvement—and the idiots at the patent office have fundamentally misunderstood his creation. Sorting out that mess will take time and tact, he thinks to himself. But he can content himself with the knowledge that he is first. He will be rich and famous. The future belongs to him.
But he never gets off the train.
Instead, it arrives in Paris without him, and he will never be seen again. The authorities will search high and low for clues, but the mystery will never be solved. And in the confusion following his disappearance, much of his equipment will also disappear. His legacy will go to others, with more money and power, and his name will fade from the history books altogether.
It is the kind of sensational tragedy that filmmakers like Louis Feuillade will make their names depicting. Pulp films for generations hereafter would find inventors, bankers, and other keepers of valuable prizes attacked on trains. Why, this will be the bread and butter of the nascent film industry in just a couple of decades. But not yet. We are only in 1890 at this point, five years before the first public screening of a motion picture show—the movies don’t yet really exist, and Feuillade is just a pimply teenager. What we have just seen is no fiction, because whatever it is that happened to Louis Le Prince actually happened. Ironically, his invention… well, it was the movies.
When Max was 6 years old, he asked me who invented movies.
It was a natural question—and consistent with his other pressing concerns: what was the first tool invented, and what was the second? Who invented the suitcase, and how did he get from place to place before that?
Being a pedantic jerk, I told my bright and curious little boy that no one person invented movies, and indeed there was no moment of invention.
This exasperated my daughter Ann, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She joined the debate with a sharply worded and well-reasoned argument that there was clearly a point in the past in which movies didn’t exist, and a point where they did—so their creation had to take place somewhere between those two poles. And clearly inventors were involved—how else to explain my collection of antique cameras, zoopraxinoscopes, and other 19th century artifacts? Oh, and what was that trip to Paris all about when we went on a pilgrimage to the site of the first film show?
Wait a minute, I explained, we went to the site of the first public theatrical screening of a commercially-oriented film program—those extra qualifying words make all the difference. The Lumiere brothers responsible for that event in 1895 and the myriad inventors behind the pre-movie toys I collect are among the many visionaries and craftspeople whose toil in an array of different disciplines in different parts of the world throughout the 1800s ultimately combined to create the movie culture we now enjoy. But there was no single moment of culmination where what was not became what is.
My kids accepted this muddle of a non-answer because they are used to listening to me. Most people don’t have that kind of patience. The question “who invented movies” demands an answer, a simple one, one that doesn’t digress into the history of the glass slide show or the role of stage magicians in the 19th century scientific establishment.
And so creation myths—imperfect ones all—have been offered up to answer the question. And there are plenty of competing candidates for the honor.
During the late 1800s, inventors around the world were furiously racing one another to develop and popularize techniques for the photography and projection of moving pictures. Many histories lazily credit Thomas Edison with that honor, but Edison himself merely lent his name to work done by others: William Dickson and Thomas Armat chief among them. Edison lacked enthusiasm in the project and failed to seize the moment as effectively as his rivals did. He opted against the public exhibition of projected movies for crowds in favor of single-viewer devices that one would wait in line to use.
It is said that the earliest film is Edison’s (that is, Dickson’s) Fred Ott’s Sneeze, filmed in 1891. In it, Fred Ott sneezes. In fact, this is merely the earliest one that survives—Edison’s company had filmed other laconic workaday scenes before that. It was in May, 1891 that Edison first unveiled his Kinetoscope at the National Federation of Women’s Clubs. The Kinetoscope was the peephole viewer in which you could stick your eye and watch a scene of roughly a minute play out. His Kinetograph was the camera that recorded the scene. Edison patented the two devices in 1893, and by 1894 he began giving demonstrations.
He didn’t even bother to extend his patents to Europe. Only after the idea of movies as mass entertainment took the world by storm—thanks to a bunch of Frenchmen—did Edison finally start taking the whole thing seriously.
And very quickly, Edison was feeling the pain of having overlooked the promise of motion pictures. Not only had public exhibition of films won out over his misguided peep-show idea, but the French had quickly asserted dominance in the marketplace. Theaters started opening across America, and began booking what the public wanted to see: French films. Méliès got his start in the movie business by exhibiting Edison’s films in his theater for lack of product, but within a year (!) it was Méliès’ works that were in highest demand in Edison’s home country.
Seeing the commercial prospects blossom, Léon Gaumont started a major film enterprise in France, as did Emile and Charles Pathé. Between the Lumières, Méliès, Gaumont, and Pathé, the French had quickly dominated the nascent world of cinema. Even the word cinema was French, a shortening of Lumière’s Cinematograph.
In response, Edison and the American movie companies Biograph and American Mutoscope did what any good capitalists do when faced with tough competition: they ran to the government for help. The founders of Biograph and American Mutoscope were closely allied with new President William McKinley, and they used their influence to strike back at Lumière. Congress passed the Dingley Bill imposing crippling import taxes on foreign goods, including films, and suddenly Lumière’s market in US theaters was taken away. For his part, Edison filed suit against the International Film Company, whose imports of French films and film equipment he resented. If Americans could not compete with the French, then the French would just have to be excluded.
Edison’s excuse for this selfish behavior was his assertion that he had pioneered the technology, and so could claim some kind of ownership that these French upstarts could not.
But, if you pushed me up against a wall, held a gun to my head, and demanded I name the person who first invented movies—no qualifications, no weasel words, no hedging or splitting hairs—I’d say it was Louis LePrince.
Some of Louis Le Prince’s films from 1888, three years before Fred Ott sneezed, still exist, and his designs for a camera and a projector also exist, as do some of the actual machines. However, his sudden disappearance from the scene in 1890 removed him from the game.
Let’s back up and explore this a bit more: when people attribute the invention of movie to Edison (or Edison’s company, if not the man), it is his patent that accords him this status. He did indeed obtain the patent for the basic technology as it came to be practiced—and while there were other pretenders to the throne, they championed dead-end technologies. Think of it as a nineteenth century format war—VHS vs. Beta, DVD vs. DivX, Blu-Ray vs. HD.
LePrince received a US patent for a contraption that was at once a camera and a projector, and an overcomplicated mess. It was clever, and it worked, but it was never going to set the world on fire, and if LePrince-boosters like myself were trying to herald his genius on the basis of that thing, we’d be on no better footing than any of his contemporaries (William Friese-Greene, anyone? I didn’t think so).
But, LePrince kept improving, kept innovating, and he refined his thingamajig until it was for all intents and purposes the same basic thing that Edison’s team would eventually hit on. The main difference was, LePrince’s camera shot on paper film manufactured by the Eastman company, whereas his competitors were figuring out how to use celluloid film.
I cannot emphasize this fact enough—LePrince was working alone. Think about what that means. Edison headed the premiere brand name of engineering gearheads in the world. And the Lumieres simply took an Edison camera apart and copied it (and Melies took a Lumiere camera apart and copied it). LePrince–why, LePrince was one of those mad scientist/backyard technologists that pop culture loves, but the real world of economics punishes. The man was steampunk, he was a Victorian gentleman tinkerer.
I say “Victorian” deliberately—he was a Frenchman who did most of his work in the UK, and then started to relocate to the US so he could get better publicity. He was planning a New York public exhibition in September 1890 when he vanished.
I’m not here to speculate on his disappearance. The Internet is a fine place to go trolling for conspiracy theories. But it isn’t speculation to note that when he disappeared, the main obstacle to Edison’s patent was removed.
You see, having gotten his patent for the 16-lens monstrosity that started all this, LePrince refined that down to a single-lens version, and filed for a patent on it. Which the US Patent Office promptly refused, saying it somehow conflicted with some other patent. LePrince fell out of the world before he had a chance to fight that ruling, and then almost immediately Edison filed his nearly identical patent, which was approved—with no mention whatsoever of any alleged conflict.
And so, without further ado–here it is. The oldest, earliest movie of them all, the ultimate “firstie.” The Roundhay Garden Scene, shot on October 14, 1888:
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