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The Lathams Build a Projector

film pictures eidoloscope machine

While showing fight films in their oversized kinetoscopes, the Lathams became convinced that projection would enhance their exhibition business. Soon they were actively pursuing the idea. The impetus, according to Woodville Latham, a former chemistry professor, came from his sons Otway and Gray:

Two of my sons were engaged at 83 Nassau street in the business of exhibiting pictures by the use of the Edison Kinetoscope. A day or so after they began the exhibitions, one of my sons came to me and asked if I could not devise a machine for projecting pictures upon a screen. He said that a number of spectators in his hearing had expressed a wish that something of that sort might be done, and subsequently I heard from spectators myself, similar expressions. I said to my son that I had not the slightest doubt of my ability to do what he had suggested, and I immediately began to consider plans for the construction of such apparatus (Woodville Latham, testimony, 4 December 1897). 2

His sons, however, gave credit to their father: “We were unable to accommodate the crowds we had, as only one at a time could view the pictures exhibited by the kinetoscope, and my father suggested making a machine that would enlarge pictures of this character so that more than one could view them at the same time.” 3

From a showman’s perspective, the commercial advantages of projection were obvious. It was a much more efficient method of exhibition that would reduce startup costs, since each parlor would need only one machine instead of six. Maintenance would be easier and wear reduced. With more people seeing a film at one time, revenues could increase. An exhibitor’s mobility would also be enhanced, thus expanding the territory where films could be shown profitably. Moreover, spectators wanted a life-size image that would enable them to see the subject matter more clearly and comfortably. As part of an audience rather than isolated viewers, they could more readily share the experience with their friends. The Lathams’ undertaking even opened up the possibility of exhibiting an entire regulation-length boxing match, which was impossible with the peephole kinetoscope’s limited capacity. The Lathams, who had no prior connections with the phonograph industry, were quick to see that motion pictures and recorded sound presented quite different commercial realities.

Woodville Latham and his sons did not pursue the invention of a projector within the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company but as a separate undertaking. A group of collaborators soon joined them. W. K. L. Dickson, increasingly dissatisfied with his situation at the Edison laboratory, provided the needed experience with motion pictures. He had met Otway Latham in the process of handling the kinetoscope business and was open to new opportunities. Eugène Lauste, a Frenchman who had worked for Edison from 1886 until April 1892, was close friends with Dickson. Introduced to the Lathams by Dickson, Lauste was promptly hired as chief mechanic at twenty-one dollars a week. The Lathams’ activities thus illustrate one way that technological expertise left the Edison laboratory when former associates and employees set up rival firms.

The Lathams planned the creation of the eidoloscope projector (if not a whole new motion-picture system which included that projector), raised the financing, and oversaw the actual execution. Dickson made it unnecessary for the group to start from scratch: even though his ideas about projection were not ultimately utilized, his expertise with printers and other aspects of film production greatly facilitated the process of developing a motion-picture system. Lauste, a mechanical expert of uncommon dexterity, did most of the actual designing and construction. 4 As with other inventive accomplishments, however, the collaborators later disagreed about their relative contributions, with each tending to claim the bulk of the credit for himself.

At first, Dickson’s assistance was friendly, informal, and clandestine. The motion-picture expert, still working for Edison and enjoying substantial royalties for his contribution to the kinetograph and kinetoscope, knew that his role in the Latham enterprise was unethical and constantly worried that it would be discovered at the West Orange laboratory. Nonetheless Dickson soon reached a verbal understanding and possibly even a contractual relationship with the Lathams. When the Lambda Company was formed (named after the Greek letter for L , the first letter of the Lathams’ name) late in 1894, it was agreed that he would receive 25 percent of the stock, provided his assistance resulted in the construction of a satisfactory apparatus for photographing, printing, developing, and projecting films. Because of his relations with Edison, Dickson’s share (valued at $125,000) was assigned to his attorney, Edmond Congar Brown. 5 Lauste also received a 4 percent share, valued at $20,000. The remainder was mostly controlled by the Lathams.

The Lathams’ projection system, like the kinetoscope, relied on a constantly moving band of film rather than the “intermittent” mechanism that momentarily stopped each frame of film in front of the condensor lens (the basis for all modern projection). According to Woodville Latham’s patent interference testimony, September and October 1894 were spent in preliminary experiments “to determine the intensity of light the projection of pictures of movement required and what were the best forms of condenser to be employed, as well as what objective [i.e. lens] would be most suitable for the purpose in view.” Tests were conducted at Columbia College in Manhattan, where Dickson brought an old-model kinetoscope and films. By October or November, the Lathams had found financing for the undertaking and set up a machine shop and offices downtown at 35 Frankfort Street. Dickson came to the Frankfort Street shop as often as once a week to offer advice and sometimes to participate in the undertaking. By December, Lauste had completed a 1½-inch (about 35-mm) gauge projecting machine. Despite the lack of an intermittent mechanism, the machine was considered fundamentally successful. It was decided, however, to use a wider, two-inch film that would allow more light to pass through the larger image surface. 6 Perhaps to make their system more distinctive, the Lathams had their film move in the reverse direction from Edison’s. The necessary motion-picture camera was constructed and then tried out on the night of 26-27 February, with Otway Latham and Dickson filming a swinging light. When this experiment proved successful, the group filmed a simple home movie on the roof of the Frankfort Street building: Woodville Latham smoked a pipe while others, including Lauste’s son, shuffled and cavorted (see illustration on page 96).

The new camera was briefly tried out as a projecting apparatus. According to Woodville Latham, it worked but was abandoned because “the life of a film used in a machine where the film is moved continuously is greatly longer than in a machine where the movement is intermittent.” Lauste remarked that the film shrank during the process of developing and was too small for the machine’s sprockets. Blinded by the precedent of constantly moving filmstrips, they continued to pursue a projecting machine that lacked an intermittent mechanism. 7 In this respect, the eidoloscope relied on principles similar to Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope (or the zoetrope).

In January 1895, while Lauste concentrated on the "taking machine, " parts were ordered and received for five projectors. Once the camera was operating, work shifted to constructing a projector that could use the two-inch film. The inventors made further improvements over the projection experiments of the preceding fall. A clear-base film stock, purchased from Eastman Kodak, replaced the frosted celluloid appropriate for the peephole kinetoscope. In March, Woodville Latham also located a lens that allowed more light to reach the screen than those previously acquired from J. B. Colt and Company. 8 The eidoloscope projector was soon completed and a demonstration arranged at the Frankfort Street office on the afternoon of 21 April. An article on their “Magic Lantern Kinetoscope” appeared the following day:

The pictures shown yesterday portrayed the antics of some boys at play in a park [sic]. They wrestled, jumped, fought, and tumbled over one another. Near where the boys were romping a man sat reading a paper and smoking a pipe. Even the puffs of smoke could be plainly seen, as could also a man’s movements when he took a handkerchief from his pocket. The whole picture on the screen yesterday was about the size of a window sash, but the size is a matter of expense and adjustment ( New York Sun, 22 April 1895, p. 2 ).

Although Edison belittled the event in the same news item, it was the first public demonstration of projected motion pictures in the United States.

With its motion-picture system functioning, the Lambda Company commenced serious production. Arrangements were made to film a fight between Young Griffo (Albert Griffiths) and Charles Barnett on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden. The 4 May encounter involved four rounds of a minute and a half each, with half a minute rest between rounds. The eight minutes of action, however, were filmed without interruption. Previously, the amount of film that could be shot at one time had been limited to about 140 feet—more than that and the film would tear—but Lauste or Dickson now added a loop to their camera so that the intermittent mechanism would not pull directly on the unexposed film. With what became known as the “Latham loop,” the capacity for continuous shooting was limited only by the amount of available film and the size of the film magazine. The improved camera did not stop during the fighters’ short rest periods—as with THE CORBETT-COURTNEY FIGHT —but continued to operate. The result, according to the Brooklyn Eagle of 8 May 1895, was "Continuous Pictures of the Griffo-Barnett Encounter. " The filming of the event generated considerable publicity for the company and its still unnamed machine. 9

With new fight pictures, the Lathams opened a small storefront theatre at 156 Broadway in New York City on 20 May. 10 Since no relevant ads appear in the newspapers, we know that they spent little on promotion. Nonetheless, the New York World ran an enthusiastic article on the newly named eidoloscope and its show, remarking:

Life size presentations they are and will be, and you won’t have to squint into a little hole to see them. You’ll sit comfortably and see fighters hammering each other, circuses, suicides, hangings, electrocutions, shipwrecks, scenes on the exchanges, street scenes, horse-races, football games, almost anything, in fact, in which there is action, just as if you were on the spot during the actual events. And you won’t see marionettes. You’ll see people and things as they are. If they wink their other eye, even though not so expressively as Miss Cissy Fitzgerald winks hers, or Thomas C. Platt winks his, you will see the lid on its way down and up. If their hair raises in fright, or grows gray in a half hour, you’ll see all the details of the change ( New York World, 28 May 1895, p. 30).

The shift from peephole to projection was much appreciated by the sporting crowd, many of whom acted just as if they were ringside. “It is all realistic, so realistic, indeed,” reported the World in the same article, “that excitable spectators have forgot themselves and cried ‘Mix up there!’ ‘Look out, Charlie, you’ll get a punch,’ ‘Oh! What do you think of that Mr. Barnett?’ and other expressions of like character.”

The Lambda Company went on to film a wide range of subjects, including a horse race at the Sheepshead Bay track, dancing girls, and several wrestling bouts on the roof of the Police Gazette building. 11 Unlike the Edison camera, which was confined to the Black Maria or the laboratory grounds, the Latham machine was sufficiently portable to take views at diverse locales, even Niagara Falls. Two additional cameras were built late in 1895 with the hope of filming the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight, but the event did not materialize owing to protests from reformers and restrictions by state and local governments.

Although the Lathams had only one completed eidoloscope projector during most or all of 1895, they exhibited in several types of venues employed for motion-picture showings over the next ten years. From the storefront theater on Broadway, Lambda moved farther downtown to another storefront theater on Park Row. In late August the company presented films for one week at Chicago’s Olympic Theater, a vaudeville house. The eidoloscope was then shifted to Kohl & Middleton’s Clark Street Dime Museum, remaining for three weeks as part of the variety show (along with the Irish talkers Cloud and Keshaw and Professor Sherman’s school of educated goats). 12 Shortly thereafter, they went to the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta.

Despite these efforts, however, the eidoloscope was not very successful; the Lathams found themselves running out of money, and the Lambda Company had accumulated considerable debt. Perhaps in an effort to escape this financial crisis, the Lathams sold exhibition rights (accompanied by newly completed projectors) for various territories. The first sale, for the state of Virginia, was made to Woodville Latham’s nephew, LeRoy Latham, who opened in Norfolk. An eidoloscope controlled by Vandergrift opened at Keith’s Bijou Theater in Philadelphia for one week in late December. D. C. Porter apparently purchased the rights for New York State and played Rochester’s vaudeville theater for two weeks in mid January 1896. 13 According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle:

There is an eidoloscope among the attractions at Wonderland this week and the exhibition given by it, though the device is as yet very far from perfect, is extremely interesting. Eidoloscope pictures, like magic lantern pictures, increase in size in proportion to the distance of the lens from the screen and the stage of the Wonderland is so shallow that the moving figures in eidoloscope pictures shown there cannot be made more than a foot or so in height. Sometimes, too, slight alternations in the focal distance momentarily dim the image. Nevertheless, the exhibition is most remarkable and to those who have never seen a kinetoscope must be a really startling novelty ( Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 21 January 1896, p. 15).

In late March, Porter opened his eidoloscope in Syracuse for two weeks at a store-front on Salina Street.

In fact, “states rights” sales did not solve the Lambda Company’s problems, and in January or February the enterprise was reorganized as the Eidoloscope Company, which absorbed Lambda and assumed many of the Lathams’ debts. The eidoloscope, however, was about to face competition from technically superior projectors.

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