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The American Mutoscope Company: A Different Technology

dickson camera film mutograph

By 1897 the American Mutoscope Company, later renamed the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company and frequently called the Biograph Company after its biograph projector, replaced the Lumière enterprise as the foremost motion picture company in the United States and retained that dominance over the next four years. 29 It resulted from a collaborative venture that brought together the talents of William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, Herman Casier, Harry Norton Marvin, and Elias Bernard Koopman. In 1893 Marvin, Casier, and Dickson together invented the photoret, a detective camera the size and shape of a watch that was subsequently marketed by Koopman’s Magic Introduction Company in New York City. 30 The financial rewards from this joint effort were small, but the four felt comfortable working together. Their alliance resumed when they decided to develop and exploit a peephole motion-picture device that would be superior to Edison’s then popular and profitable kinetoscope. Dickson, though still working for Edison and surreptitiously helping the Lathams with the eidoloscope, provided the group with the basic idea for the invention. His flip-card device showed a series of photographic images in rapid succession and so created the illusion of movement. Called a mutoscope and designed to run by hand, it would serve the same function as the peephole kinetoscope but work more cheaply and efficiently.

The “K.M.C.D.” group, as they called themselves (using the first initials of their last names), set to work. Koopman provided the necessary financing while Casier designed and constructed a mutoscope prototype at the Syracuse, New York, machine shop where he was then employed. The model was completed and a patent application filed in November 1894, when Edison’s kinetoscope business was still booming. 31 After Koopman approved the invention, Casier began work on a mutograph camera that would make the necessary series of photographic images. Dickson again supplied crucial advice, and the camera was ready for preliminary testing by late February, when paper was run through it “to determine that the various elements of the mechanism were properly performing their respective functions.” 32 Like the kinetograph, the mutograph camera relied on electricity to power its mechanism, but the principles involved were quite different from those of Edison’s device. Instead of using sprockets to guide the film through the camera, the mutograph relied on a friction feed. In addition, the film stock, 70 mm (2¾ inches) wide, provided more than four times the image surface of a standard 35-mm frame. It was as bulky and complicated as the mutoscope was simple.

In June the camera was successfully tested with actual strips of film, which showed Marvin and Casier sparring. The same month Harry Marvin opened the Marvin Electric Rock Drill Works in Canastoda, New York. Casier joined him as superintendent at ninety dollars a month and brought his motion-picture experiments to this new site. Dickson, who had left Edison’s employ in April and distanced himself from the Lathams, stayed with Marvin for part of the summer and fall as work moved forward. On 5 August the first “official” mutoscope film was taken of two more practiced pugilists, Professor Al Leonard and his pupil Bert Hosley—boxing matches were clearly seen as important subject matter in the mutoscope’s future. Dickson either was not present or remained discreetly in the background.

While improvements were undoubtedly made between the June test and the August production, the camera probably did not embody all the characteristics detailed in Casler’s patent application until shortly before it was filed on 26 February 1896. The mechanism, using a continuously moving friction-feed device, brought the film in front of the aperture, where a pressure plate held it in place while a double punch made holes in it, and the shutter opened and exposed it. Because the resulting frames were not evenly spaced along the negative, the holes provided the necessary registration of images during the printing process. 33

By the time that work on the mutograph was well advanced, the peephole motion-picture business had fallen on hard times. People in the field were looking toward projection rather than alternatives to Edison’s kinetoscope. On 22 September 1895, the K.M.C.D. group met at Marvin’s home in Canastoda, posed for a group portrait, and discussed their future. Dickson, who was still in touch with Raff & Gammon and the Lathams, may well have urged the group to develop a projector. Unaware that others had already discovered the secret of projection, they began work and experimentation afresh. One employee at Koopman’s Magic Introduction Company later recalled, “We had made several experiments, in which we threw the two arc lights on the Mutoscope [opaque] bromide-paper pictures as they revolved on the reel. We projected them with this reflected light, panopticon method.” 34 This approach was not notably successful, and by November 1895 the group had adapted the mutograph camera to work as a projector. Light was directed into the camera and reflected onto a mirror before passing through the film and onto the screen. In a later form, the company’s biograph projector dispensed with the mirror, and the light source assumed its now-familiar place behind the film gate and lens. Nonetheless, the projector,like the camera, used not sprockets and perforated film but rather a constantly moving friction-feed device with a clamp to hold the film steady while light passed through it and onto the screen. 35

The K.M.C.D. group formed the American Mutoscope Company as a New Jersey corporation at the end of December 1895. In mid January the rights to Casiers mutoscope patents and applications were assigned to the company and then offered as security for first-mortgage coupon bonds in the amount of $200,000 by the New York Security and Trust Company. By February 1897, $115,000 from this fund had been subscribed. This money plus the sale of stock to various investors provided American Mutoscope with extensive financial backing, which allowed it to avoid some of the funding pitfalls of both the Vitascope Company and the Lumières. Dun & Company reported that “all identified with the business are considered shrewd and capable and are well known in the commercial world.” The company president, George R. Blanchard, was commissioner of the Joint Traffic Association and one of the most prominent railroad executives in the country. First vice-president William H. Kimball was national bank examiner; secretary John T. Easton was a prominent lawyer. The board of directors boasted men such as E. J. Berwind, part owner of the Berwind & White Coal Mining Company, “considered a shrewd and capable merchant, and reputed to be very wealthy.” Joseph Jefferson, a famous actor, and Abner McKinley, brother of the future president of the United States, also invested in the enterprise. These investors represented large-scale capital; their background and resources differed markedly from those of the small-time businessmen who bought the vitascope rights. With their support, Dickson and Koopman were installing machinery and other appliances at 841 Broadway in New York City by the end of January. A few months later, a developing and manufacturing plant was being constructed in Hoboken, New Jersey. 36

The American Mutoscope Company was not prepared to enter the amusement field upon its formation: only six films were available, all of them taken in Canastoda. 37 Four of these were labeled SPARRING CONTEST AT CANASTODA (Nos. 1–4), while two others demonstrated the workings of machinery: THRESHING MACHINE (No. 5) and ENGINE AND PUMP (No. 6). Production for commercial amusement did not really commence until the mutograph camera was moved to New York City. In the spring of 1896 Dickson took charge of the camera and photographed two views of Union Square from the rooftop of 841 Broadway. Six other subjects, among them SKIRT DANCE BY ANNARELLE (No. 9), TAMBOURINE DANCE BY ANNABELLE No. 10), and SANDOW (Nos. 12 and 13), may have been made on the same rooftop. They were taken against a black background and bear a strong resemblance to the Black Maria films that Dickson had produced two years earlier. Similar scenes continued to be made against black or white backgrounds throughout the summer as Sandow and Annabelle Whitford [Moore] returned for additional sessions before the mutograph. Other posed subjects with actors included TRILBY AND LITTLE BILLEE (No. 36), an excerpted moment from the popular play Trilby, and vignettes of African Americans in “characteristic poses.” A HARD WASH (No. 39) shows a black woman scrubbing her child. Spectators were expected to consider the scene humorous since no matter how hard the mother scrubbed, she would never get him “truly clean” ( i.e. , white). As with WATERMELON FEAST (No. 40) and DANCING DARKIES (No. 41), the plain backgrounds turned these activities, like the images of Sandow flexing his muscles, into exhibits for curious audiences. Even these first motion pictures of African

Americans conformed to degrading, white-imposed stereotypes characteristic of American filmmaking throughout the period covered by this volume.

Despite its immense bulk, the company’s only camera was frequently removed from the rooftop and used to film the everyday world. In these efforts, Dickson was often helped by a young employee of the Magic Introduction Company, Johann Gottlob Wilhelm (“Billy”) Bitzer. On 6 June, Dickson shot BICYCLE PARADE ON THE BOULEVARD (Nos. 15 and 16) on Broadway north of Columbus Circle. Another large group of films was taken in July at Atlantic City and on the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad. PANORAMIC VIEW FROM TROLLEY (No. 22), like an earlier Edison film of Niagara Falls, was photographed from a moving trolley car. Toward the end of August, Dickson visited his friend Joseph Jefferson at his summer home in Buzzard’s Bay. There, against natural backgrounds, the actor performed highlights of his famed role in the play Rip Van Winkle. Eight scenes were shot, including RIP’S TOAST (No. 45), RIP’S TWENTY YEARS’ SLEEP (No. 50), and RIP LEAVING SLEEPY HOLLOW (No. 52). S STABLE ON FIRE (No. 44), in which horses are led from a smoking barn, was taken on the same trip. On another expedition, in mid September, Dickson filmed cadets at West Point, took eleven films of Niagara Falls, and shot political demonstrations in Canton, Ohio (M C KINLEY AT HOME , CANTON , O. [No. 72]). From there, Dickson visited Canastoda and took five films of onrushing trains, including EMPIRE STATE EXPRESS (Nos. 77, 78, 81). The camera was placed close to the tracks and pointing toward the train, which came toward and then past the camera. Groups of related films were taken at each location. 38

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