Laurie Dickson (1860-1935), a young British inventor, developed some of the first machines for capturing and projecting moving images. His unique contributions to the development of motion pictures included a sprocket mechanism that could expose a strip of film at regular intervals, as well as an early experiment in combining moving images with sound. Dickson founded his own motion picture studio and launched the careers of early cinema actors and directors such as Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Lillian Gish.
William Kennedy Laurie Dickson was born to English parents in Minihic-sur-Ranse, France on March 16, 1860. At the age of nineteen he was fatherless, and living in London. Dickson read an article about the American inventor, Thomas Alva Edison, who had recently unveiled his most remarkable invention-the electric lightbulb. Edison was already famous for having invented the phonograph, a machine for recording sound. Dickson, an amateur photographer, had become fascinated by the possibility of recording moving images, and was captivated by Edison's brilliance and success. He sent a telegram to Edison in 1881, asking for work in the research laboratory that Edison had established at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Although Edison dismissed the telegram, Dickson was convinced that if he could speak with the famous inventor, he would find a place to pursue his ideas. By 1883, Dickson had earned the fare to travel to the United States. He arrived at Menlo Park seeking a job. Because Dickson demonstrated some knowledge of photography and photographic processes, Edison hired him as a laboratory assistant.
For five years, Dickson worked on a variety of projects at Menlo Park. In 1888, Edison asked him to investigate the progress of inventors who were experimenting with recorded motion. In February of that year, the British photographer, Eaydward Muybridge arrived in Orange, New Jersey. He gave an "illustrated lecture" with the help of a "zoopraxiscope," a machine that projected still photographs in a sequence until they seemed to merge into a single moving image. Muybridge met with Edison and suggested that they explore merging the technologies of his zoopraxiscope with the phonograph. The zoopraxiscope, however, proved to be impractical. It depended on hand painted images that were costly and time consuming to produce. Edison chose a more economical approach, and filed papers with the U.S. Patent Office. He prepared a document designed to prevent other parties from filing patents on Edison's idea. It read, in part: "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion, and in such a form as to be both cheap practical and convenient. This apparatus I call a Kinetoscope 'Moving View."' By 1889, Dickson was assigned to the project, along with Charles A. Brown, his chief assistant.
According to Charles Musser in Before the Nickelodeon, Edison initially conceived of the picture machine in terms of the phonograph he had invented several years earlier. Like Edison's phonograph, which recorded sound on a rotating cylinder, the first camera that Dickson and Brown devised depended on cylinders wrapped in celluloid sheets and photographic emulsion. In November 1890, they were able to record a series of moving pictures that they called, Monkeyshines. The experiment recorded the movements of Brown's assistant, Fred Ott, who was dressed in white and performed against a black background. The successful experiment secured Edison's full commitment to the project.
Dickson and Brown constructed a special building for the Kinetoscope project and other photographic work at the laboratory. Dickson was removed from the assignment for a time while he worked on an ore-milling experiment with Edison. He returned to the task with a new assistant, William Heise, who had extensive experience working with the automatic telegraph. They soon began work on a horizontal-feed motion picture camera, and this first Kinetoscope, the peephole viewer, was introduced to a convention of the Federation of Women's Clubs in 1891. The image viewed through the aperture was that of a man (Dickson) bowing and smiling while removing his cap. The filmstrip consisted of several images that passed in front of an illuminated lens and behind a spinning wheel. The film was three-quarters of an inch wide and ran through the apparatus by being drawn on a single row of small perforations along the bottom edge of the film, a process very similar to that of moving the paper tape in the early telegraph machine. A filmstrip gave the viewer a brief glance at each of about 40 pictures in the course of one second giving the illusion of lifelike motion. In 1891, they prepared and submitted patent applications for the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope.
With a true inventor's zeal, Dickson began to experiment with difference sizes and lengths of film, as well as different lenses. He developed a number of processes to refine the development of film and finally changed the system from a horizontal to a vertical-feed. By October 1892, Dickson and his team had established the modern day model of a film camera that used 35-millimeter film in a vertical-feed. Edison decided to launch the Kinetoscope on the commercial market. Anticipating a demand for film subjects, Dickson built a studio, the "Black Maria," named after the slang expression for a police wagon. It was a wood-frame building covered by tarpaper and its roof could open to the sun. The entire building rested on a rotating track so that it could follow the sun throughout the day. The Black Maria, the world's first film studio, was completed by May 1893. The first film recorded there, Blacksmith Scene, was exhibited on Dickson's Kinetoscope on May 9, 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.
By April 1894, the first Kinetoscope parlor was opened in New York City. A peek cost five cents and viewers had to purchase a series of five scenes for 25 cents. The Kineto-scope, designed for a single viewer, was, according to David Robinson, "an upright wooden cabinet, 18 inches by 27 inches by 4 inches high, with a peephole with magnifying lenses in the top." The film, Robinson continues, "was arranged around a series of spools. As each frame passed under the lens, the shutter permitted a flash of light so brief that the frame appeared to be frozen. This rapid series of apparently still frames appeared, thanks to the persistence of vision phenomenon, as a moving image."
These early films often borrowed from Vaudeville, a popular form of entertainment frequented especially by working class people. Musser points out that the early Kinetoscope films often depicted male spaces, such as bar rooms, boxing matches, cock fights, or horse shoeing. When the Kinetoscope debuted in mid-town Manhattan, however, its cost restricted it to a middle class audience that consisted of as many women as men. Dickson and Edison began to provide more benign scenes, including highland dancers, organ grinders, and trained bears. The essential nature of the viewing experience remained private. Scenes of dancing girls were popular, and elicited stricter regulations that bordered on censorship. Musser maintains that "sex and violence was at the core of almost every image."
The Kinetoscope was a novelty and a success. However, Edison had failed to file for international patents, believing that the fees were too high for an invention that might never catch on. Soon competing versions of the Kinetoscope, often better ones, were being manufactured in Europe. This prompted a kind of race between the Americans and the Europeans to market the best motion picture device. The French unveiled a lighter weight hand-cranked version of the Kinetograph. The "cinematographe" assured their dominance in the market and introduced the word "cinema" into the English language.
The Kinetoscope business, though profitable, began to wane. Edison's business was continually threatened by other motion picture initiatives in the United States and abroad. The demand for a technology that would allow more than a single viewer to watch a film prompted inventors to begin experimenting with the first screen projector. Edison, however, saw no need to exhibit to large groups of people and was slow to embrace this idea. Dickson was finally able to convince Edison to acquire rights to a state-of the-art "screen machine." This device was developed by Thomas Armat, a young inventor from Washington, D.C., to project images onto a screen so that groups of people could view the images simultaneously. The Edison Vitascope premiered at Koster and Bial's music hall in 1896.
Dickson had left Edison in April 1895. The break resulted from a struggle for control of the Edison motion picture industry between Dickson and Edison's general manager, William Gilmore. For the last two years of his employment at Edison's laboratory, Dickson had been collaborating with competitors, surreptitiously assisting Woodville Latham and his sons with their early projector. Dickson accepted a 25 percent ownership interest in Latham's "Lambda Company" in 1894. Lambda's product, the eidoloscope projector debuted in New York on April 21, 1895. With Elias Bernard Koopman, Harry Norton Marvin, and Herman Casler, Dickson also helped develop "the photoret," a detective camera about the size of a watch. The "K.M.C.D." group, as they called themselves, introduced the camera in 1893 and made a small profit. They decided to continue their association by developing a cheaper, more efficient Kinetoscope. Dickson provided critical advice. Toward the end of 1894, the Mutoscope prototype was ready to be tested. The mutograph guided film through the camera using friction feed rather than sprockets.
In 1895, Dickson and his fellow K.M.C.D. associates founded the American Mutoscope Company, later the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Dickson recreated his own invention and dubbed it the Mutograph, making several design improvements and modifications that would permit the camera to work as a projector. The motion picture market place had become extremely competitive by 1895. All of Edison's Vitascope competitors became licensees rather than face continuous litigation. Dickson's company remained independent because the Mutograph was deemed to be different from the Vitascope in significant and substantial ways, thereby avoiding patent infringements. Dickson's first film was Empire State Express. The American Mutograph and Biograph Co. competed with the Edison Vitascope for the next 15 years. In 1897, Dickson sold his interest in the company and returned to England where he worked for Biograph's sister company, the British Mutograph and Biograph Co. When the company finally went out of business in 1904, Dickson returned to inventing. He died on September 28, 1935 in Twickenham, Middlesex, England.
Musser, Charles, History of the American Cinema, 1990.
Musser, Charles, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company, 1991.
"Edison Motion Pictures," http://rs6.loc.gov/ammem/edhtml/edmvhm.html]
"The Film 100," http://www.film100.com/list.shtml
"History of motion pictures: Edison and the Lumiere brothers, "Encyclopedia Britannica Online http://search.eb.com/bol/topic?eu = 119924&sctn = 2&pm = 1 □