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Projecting Motion Pictures: Invention and Innovation

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T he idea of adapting Edison’s moving pictures to the magic lantern or stereopticon was so simple and straightforward that it undoubtedly occurred to hundreds, probably thousands, of people who peered into the kinetoscope. Fewer individuals, but still a surprisingly large number, tried to turn this idea into a reality. Projecting machines were invented independently and more or less simultaneously in four major industrialized countries: France, England, Germany, and the United States. While each inventor gave his machine a different name, their projectors all shared the same basic principles. In France, Auguste and Louis Lumière developed the cinématographe at their Lyons factory, showed it privately in March 1895, and opened commercially in Paris at the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines on 28 December 1895. Robert Paul, who was making films and kinetoscopes in England, realized his own idea for a projector after hearing of a Lumière cinématographe performance. He called it the theatrograph and demonstrated it to the public on 20 February 1896, at Finsbury Technical College. Max Skladanowsky’s bioscope, which was shown at Berlin’s Wintergarten in November 1895, was the most eccentric and commercially unimportant of the European inventions but is indicative of the many attempts to show projected motion pictures. 1

In the United States the development of a successful projector took a more circuitous path. Although Edison always gave lip service to the idea of projection, the sales of peephole machines were at first so profitable that he was not at all eager to disrupt his lucrative market. Even if a “screen machine” proved more popular, the inventor believed—with considerable reason—that it would hurt him financially. Correspondingly it was commercial opportunity that beckoned a band of determined exhibitors to build the first American machine for projecting motion pictures. They would call it the eidoloscope.

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