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William Kennedy Laurie Dickson Becomes Edison's Motion-Picture Expert

camera film kinetoscope edison’s

As was the case with other important innovations in motion-picture technology, the kinetograph was the result of a collaboration. Some historians, most notably Terry Ramsaye, have favored Edison’s role; others, particularly Gordon Hendricks, have championed Dickson. Similar historiographic differences, as we shall see in the next two chapters, have arisen around the invention of projection technology. The process of invention via collaboration is complex and almost always difficult to document in detail because it relies on the exchange of ideas. The so-called expert may often need the perspective of his or her less specialized partner. The informal process of give and take, the very ability to shape ideas jointly: these are qualities that often yield successful results yet make it impossible to give credit to one member of the team

In February 1889 the Edison laboratory opened a kinetoscope account, coinciding with the writing of Edison’s second caveat. Pattern makers, machinists, and blacksmiths may have spent the next several months building a model that conformed to Edison’s idea of a photographic cylinder. Charles A. Brown and W. K. L. Dickson were brought into the kinetograph effort by late June. 19 Edison may have chosen Dickson reluctantly, since he was the inventor’s key associate on the laboratory’s priority undertaking at the time, the iron-ore-milling project, as well as its preeminent photographer. But if Dickson was overcommitted, he was probably the only staff member with the necessary expertise.

Initially, Dickson and Brown were applying the photographic emulsion directly onto the cylinders. As Dickson later recalled, “The photographic portion of the undertaking was seriously hampered by the defects of the materials at hand, which, however excellent in themselves, offered no substance sufficiently sensitive. How to secure clear-cut outlines, or indeed any outlines at all, together with the phenomenal speed, was the problem which puzzled the experimenters.” 20 Various emulsions were tried, but each was lacking in light sensitivity or had excessive grain for the microscopic images.

During the summer of 1889 Dickson and Brown devoted virtually all their time to the kinetoscope project. After Edison had left for Europe and the Paris Exposition in early August 1889, they constructed a special building for this and other photographic work. 21 Soon they were experimenting with cylinders wrapped with celluloid sheets that carried a photographic emulsion—much as Edison had wrapped his original phonograph with tin foil. 22 Three photographic sheets similar to those used for these experiments survive; they show an Edison employee dressed in white, placed against a black background and performing an array of movements or “monkeyshines” for the camera. 23 When Edison returned that October, he saw some results from Dickson’s cylinder experiments. While these were somewhat disappointing, the inventor himself had a new approach to pursue.

During his visit to Paris, Edison had met Étienne-Jules Marey and become acquainted with the Frenchman’s methods of photographing continuous series of images on a film strip that was moved along intermittently in front of a single camera lens. This approach pointed toward a conceptual break from the too-literal application of phonograph-kinetoscope parallels. It sent Edison back to earlier design methods, including the ticker-tape-like method of organizing information that he had briefly considered in 1877 while developing his “sound writer.” Shortly after his return, Edison drew up a new caveat for motion pictures that reflected these conceptual advances (which were thus also regressions to earlier methods of design, presumably stimulated by a brief exchange with Marey). “Figure 46 is a Kinetoscope. The sensitive film is in the form of a long band passing from one reel to another in front of a square slit as in figure 47. On each side of the band are rows of holes exactly opposite each other & into which double toothed wheels pass. … Fig 48 gives rough idea of positive feed mechanism of course this principle can be applied to cylinders covered with the photo material as well as in bands.” 24

Actual production of an instrument based on these principles, however, was almost a year and a half away. Edison and his experimenters were trying to develop a complete kinetograph/kinetoscope system, and Marey’s achievements did not seem to suggest an effective method of exhibition. Dickson, no longer restricted to the cylinder idea, briefly reconsidered the disk method of organizing his images. He turned to the tachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz, a device that displayed a series of fourteen to twenty-four images placed along the edge of a disk in a manner some-what similar to Heyl’s phasmatrope. The disk moved continuously, with the images illuminated by a strobe effect. This work occurred in late 1889 and early 1890. 25 The cylindrical and circular motifs evident in the phonograph and Muybridge’s disks for the zoopraxiscope combined to bar the way to a quick solution. Moreover Edison’s return from Paris meant that Dickson and Brown had little time to devote to the kinetoscope, since Dickson now rejoined Edison on the ore-milling experiments.

It was not until October 1890 that Dickson returned to the motion-picture project. This time, he worked closely with a new assistant, William Heise, whose expertise in advancing rolls of paper tape through an automatic telegraph made him a valuable new partner. 26 The new twosome briefly pursued the cylindrical experiments but was soon working to develop a horizontal-feed motion-picture camera from Edison’s Marey-inspired caveat. 27 By then, they were familiar with the work of William Friese-Greene, who claimed to have taken a continuous series of photographs from a single point of view at the rate often shots per second. 28 Finally, on 20 May 1891, Edison unveiled a peephole viewing machine to a large group attending a convention of the Federation of Women’s Clubs: “They saw, through an aperture in a pine box standing on the floor, the picture of a man. It bowed and smiled, and took off its hat naturally and gracefully. Every motion was perfect, without a hitch or a jerk.” 29 The person in the film was Dickson (and the description recalls the subject he supposedly showed to Edison on the latter’s return from Paris in 1889).

The club members were quickly followed by reporters. Edison claimed that his films were shot at the rate of forty-six frames a second, probably an exaggeration but one that was meant to distinguish his machine from those of competitors like Friese-Greene. “The trouble with all attempts heretofore made to reproduce action and motion by photographs,” Edison told a reporter, “was that the photographs could not be taken in series with sufficient rapidity to catch accurately the motion it was desired to reproduce.” Edison was excited about the results. “Now I’ve got it. That is, I’ve got the germ or base principle. When you get your base principle right, then it’s only a question of time and a matter of details about completing the machine.” And, the reporter noted, Edison “ran up stairs with the step of a boy” as he prepared to show the machine. 30

The films at these May demonstrations were only three-quarters of an inch wide and were taken with a horizontal-feed apparatus rather than the vertical-feed system that would characterize modern motion pictures. Positive filmstrips were made from the original camera negatives. A single row of small perforations ran along the bottom edge of the films (these were inverted, top down, however, as they ran through the camera). Images on the film were circular, a technique common to magic-lantern slides. Different subjects were filmed against black backgrounds in a manner recalling Muybridge’s earlier photographs. Several showed James Duncan, a laborer at the laboratory who was assigned to the project as an inexpensive and genial subject; these included a close-up of him smoking a pipe, which was designed to capture his facial expressions. Others were of athletes from Newark, New Jersey. Variety in camera framing and the focal plane were assumed from the outset. 31

Edison did not wait for refinements before beginning the process of patenting this work. In June 1891 Dickson and Edison’s lawyers started preparing two patent applications for a motion-picture camera or kinetograph, and one for a peepholeviewing device or kinetoscope. These were submitted on 24 August to the U.S. Patent Office, inaugurating a process of review, claim and counterclaim, suit and countersuit that was to last for over twenty years. Similar applications were not submitted to patent offices overseas. While Edison later claimed that this “oversight” was meant to save money, it seems more plausible that he realized that his broad patent claims would be challenged and defeated overseas, where similar work had already been done and was well known. 32

With the basic principles established, Dickson improved the system, adopting wider strips of film that were less susceptible to breakage. In early November, he ordered raw stock that was 1½ inches wide, 50 feet long, and 5/1000 of an inch thick. Already this order was for film of two different sensitivities, one for negatives and another for positive film prints. This order to the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company was not filled until early December—and then only in an unsatisfactory manner, since the emulsion did not stick to the celluloid base. A month later, Dickson was still waiting for usable stock to arrive (such technical difficulties and delays eventually caused him to switch to film stock made by the Blair Camera Company). Meanwhile, Dickson had ordered two lenses for his camera (one “of telescopic character to bring more distant objects clearly and larger to the front … say a horse race 200 to 500 feet off large enough to be clearly defined in a 1” picture") and a third for a viewing device. Rubberized trays and drums were also ordered for developing the film. 33

By late 1891 the inventors were well on their way to completing a vertical-feed motion-picture camera. Firm evidence of this, however, did not appear until October 1892, when frames of motion-picture subjects were published in the Phonogram. Two were of men wrestling and fencing; another showed Heise and Dickson standing against a black background and shaking hands for the benefit of the camera. The presentational approach that would characterize most films made for Edison’s peep-hole kinetoscope was already evident. 34

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