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The Phantoscope Is Commercialized as the Vitascope

gammon raff armat machine

The commercial exploitation of the Jenkins-Armat phantoscope required effective organization, financing, and promotion, which Raff & Gammon were capable of providing. Reaching a contractual agreement was the first step. More than a month of negotiations followed Armat’s December screening for Frank Gammon before a final understanding was reached. Armat hoped to manage the business with Raff & Gammon, but the partners refused. “We cannot agree to divide the responsibility and policy of the business with you,” they insisted. “As it is our money alone which is to be at stake, and the entire risk is ours, and as we have had long experience in business of a similar nature, we think it right and proper that the management of the business should remain in our hands.” Differences over the division of income also had to be negotiated. While Armat bowed to the demands of the kinetoscope dealers, he wanted to retain the exclusive exhibition rights for Washington, D.C., and Atlantic City. Raff & Gammon were agreeable but asked in return, “the right to establish and exhibit in New York for our own exclusive benefit,” thus deftly acquiring the rights to the smallest but most lucrative piece of territory in the United States. 3

The final contract gave Raff & Gammon "the sole and exclusive right to manufacture rent or lease or otherwise handle (as may be agreed upon in this contract or by future agreement) in any and all countries of the world the aforesaid machine or device called the ‘Phantoscope.’ " Armat received 25 percent of the monies gained by selling exhibition rights and 50 percent of the gross receipts (minus the cost of manufacture) for other areas of the business up to $7,500—above which he was to assume half the general expenses of running the business. Such income would come from the rental of machines, the sale of films, and other miscellaneous services, since the owners of states rights would be obliged to deal exclusively with Raff & Gammon. Projecting machines, moreover, were to be leased—not sold—and were to remain Armat’s property. 4

Once Raff & Gammon reached an agreement with Armat, they did not immediately send him the contract. Rather, they nervously approached Thomas Edison and his chief business executive, William Gilmore, whose reactions to the adoption of a non-Edison screen machine were considered unpredictable. Less than a year before, the Lathams had exhibited their machine to the press and encountered Edison’s wrath. A somewhat similar reaction to this new machine seemed possible if not probable. In the interim, however, Edison’s motion-picture business had fallen off and commercial rivals had multiplied. While Armat’s machine posed yet another threat, it could also help to revive Edison’s kinetograph enterprise. For these reasons, the “Wizard” was predisposed to bring the phantoscope into his circle. Meeting with Gilmore and Edison on 15 January 1896, Raff & Gammon obtained an agreement by which the Edison Manufacturing Company was to supply the necessary films and manufacture the projectors. Delighted to have Edison’s cooperation, Raff & Gammon informed Armat of their successful arrangements. “We feel like congratulating ourselves over the results of our efforts in this direction and we now have no further doubts as to getting the business promptly into operation and upon a successful and profitable basis, as soon as you furnish us with the machines called for in the contract.” These new activities did not continue the old Kinetoscope Company, which Raff & Gammon would liquidate when the appropriate opportunity arose, but formed a new enterprise. 5

Soon after signing the contract, Raff & Gammon learned of Jenkins’ independent activities. The precise moment is uncertain, but by early February all parties recognized that their machine required its own trade name. Raff & Gammon suggested "vitascope"—from the Latin vita, “life,” and the Greek scope, “to see.” Armat countered with “zoescope,” which he argued, “means the same as ‘Vitascope,’ but it has the advantage of having both roots derived from the Greek.” “Zoescope” was rejected, however. “While we have no special preference for the name ‘Vitascope’ yet we do not like the name ‘Zoescope’ as it is too much like ‘Zoetrope,’ which was brought out by a German here some years since, and was a total failure,” explained Raff & Gammon. “We do not like to have the new machine called by a name or similar to that borne by a machine which was a failure.” Once the name was settled, Raff & Gammon raised a more delicate question, that of marketing and profit maximization. Potential investors as well as potential audiences were waiting for the screen machine that Edison had promised them many times before. Commercial exhibitions of projected motion pictures by non-Edison showmen had already been given but without notable success. Armat, of course, had some personal experience in this regard. Raff & Gammon, therefore, wanted to attach Edison’s name to the machine. Armat and Edison agreed. Henceforth, the machine was known as “Edison’s vitascope.” 6

The vitascope group confronted several technical issues during the winter months. Armat was anxious to improve the quality of the projected image by using a clear-base film stock, like that already being used by the Lathams, rather than the frosted or translucent surface best for kinetoscopes. The Blair Company, however, had difficulties providing a serviceable product of this kind, and it was many months before the Edison Company turned out films suited for projection. Raff & Gammon also wanted to switch to a larger-gauge film. As they explained to Armat, “The object in making it wider is not to show scenery, but simply to enable us to make a picture of proper width to exhibit on a theatrical stage. As you yourself heard while here, the criticism made by all the theatrical people is that the picture is too narrow in its width.” This change would have been quite easy because the Edison Company had already constructed two kinetographs that used a two-inch format. In the end it was Armat who wisely pushed the idea aside: “Notwithstanding the fact that I think it is a very simple matter to use the wide films, difficulties may arise that it will take experiments to overcome, and experiments take time, and time is a most important factor, so I would certainly rush the machines just as they stand, and they can be modified afterward if desired, for the wide films, with very little expense.” Armat spent much of the winter making minor alterations on the vitascope and constructing a new model for the Edison laboratory. Raff & Gammon found it to be “a great improvement over any we have yet seen.” 7

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