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The Vitascope

motion history pictures picture

T he vitascope effectively launched projected motion pictures as a screen novelty in the United States. In late April 1896 the vitascope was showing films in only one American theater, Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York City, but the sub-sequent pace of diffusion was remarkable. By May 1897, only one year later, several hundred projectors were in use across the country. Honolulu had its first picture show in early February 1897, while Phoenix, in Arizona Territory, followed that May. 1 In the Northeast and Midwest, villages of a few thousand inhabitants had been visited by showmen with motion pictures not once but two or three times. The vast majority of Americans had the opportunity to see motion pictures on a screen, and many took it. Their responses were not unlike those that greeted the magic lantern in the 1650s or the stereopticon in the 1860s—astonishment at the lifelike quality of the images. It was during this brief thirteen- or fourteen-month period that most of the future owners of film-production companies associated with the Motion Picture Patents Company entered the field. A new industry was established and staffed. New practices were introduced and old ones reasserted. It was a period of ferment and rapid change. By its close, a framework for the development of subsequent motion-picture practice had come into being.

Controversy surrounds the history of “Edison’s vitascope.” For some historians, notably Terry Ramsaye, it is a history of heroic accomplishment that allowed American cinema to achieve meaningful expression. For others, such as Gordon Hendricks and Robert C. Allen, it is a history of greed, dishonesty, and ineptitude. 2 Both views have some validity. Despite its fresh name, the machine was a phantoscope that had been slightly refined by Thomas Armat. Although Edison, Armat, and others reaped ample financial rewards from the machine during its brief commercial life, a group of small-time and often naive investors lost substantial amounts of cash. The only thing these hopeful entrepreneurs made for themselves was a place in film history, insofar as they introduced Americans to projected motion pictures, almost always in the face of severe technical difficulties. Moralizing tales of heroism and villainy have their appeal, but they can easily obscure other issues vital to our understanding of the cinema’s beginnings.

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