A question everyone has asked before is: when were Movies invented? A question I didn’t know the answer to either. Of course, I did know that “entertainment” has been around for a long time. Just think of the gladiators, theater or even the Olympics.

I’ve done some research on this topic to give you the best guide which isn’t too complicated. Honestly, there are a lot of complicated guides or blogs out there. So, I’ll give you a simplified guide with enough information to know more about film history.

Before Cinema

The medium of film as an art form emerged from and has undergone influences from literature, theater, and photography. The idea behind film, namely a realistic representation of moving images, is very old.

For centuries, inventors have been working on systems that allowed you to project something like moving images, on the wall or in a cabinet or something similar. These systems were largely for home use, usually fell under optical toys, and often had frenzied names like phenakistiscope or zoëtrope.

The phenakistiscope and zoetrope

Devices capable of producing an illusion of motion were made in China as early as the 2nd century. Knowledge regarding optics and human vision was increasing. Ancient scientists discovered that the human eye perceives images seen in rapid succession as one fluid and moving whole. Based on this knowledge, all kinds of optical toys were designed in the nineteenth century, such as the phenakistiscope and the zoetrope. With these devices, people looked through peepholes at a rotating disk with images that were slightly different each time, creating an illusion of movement. See the images below for more clarity.

The Magic Lantern and the Phantasmagoria

The new technology was aimed at capturing moving images in order to project them onto a screen. At the end of the nineteenth century, this led to the creation of the cinema (“cinema”). Several technical developments and gadgets contributed to this. You probably know some of these.

  • The magic lantern (laterna magica): It was probably invented by Christiaan Huygens in 1654. It is clearly an early version of the slide projector and works with glass slides that can be slid behind a lens. As there were no photographs yet, the first images used were painted on the glass. A candle or an oil lamp was used as a light source. Both the light source and the images of the magic lantern would grow with the times.
  • The phantasmagoria: This is a modified version of the magic lantern invented by Étienne-Gaspard Robertson in the late 18th century. He projected images not only onto walls, but also onto smoke or semi-transparent screens. This created the illusion of a ghostly apparition. This device was therefore mainly used for horror-like performances.

Photography

An important technical development that led to film technology comes from photography. More specifically, the ability to shoot multiple images in succession; after all, a film consists of some 16 to 24 images (frames) per second, and sometimes the frame rate is even higher. After the first successful photograph, it takes another half century, until 1878, before exposure time is reduced 8 hours to a fraction of a second. Photographic material is then still printed on glass, metal, paper or derivatives thereof.

The surface on which photographic images were placed was not yet of enormous importance to photographs. Unlike films, it was necessary that this material be flexible enough to pass quickly through a camera. The introduction of celluloid rolls in 1889 was a major breakthrough in this regard, first of all for photography, but later also for film.

Sallie and the beginning of the film camera

The first person to work with the basic principle behind the film was British photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), who emigrated to the US. According to the anecdote, a former governor of California, Leland Stanford, wanted to know if a galloping horse would come completely loose from the ground. He commissioned Muybridge to find out by means of photographs. To this end, in 1877, the photographer captured the movement of the mare Sallie Gardner with twelve cameras lined up in a row following a complex system to take all the necessary pictures. It worked, however, and Sallie came completely off the ground.

However, it would not have succeeded if Muybridge had not made important improvements to the cameras. For example, he managed to reduce the exposure time of his cameras from a few seconds to a fraction of a second, which allowed him to take unmoved pictures of a moving animal. In addition, he constructed a fast-acting mechanical shutter. This definitively made the photographer an inventor.

Nor, for that matter, would it have succeeded if Muybridge had had to serve his rightful sentence for murdering his wife’s lover, but important connections managed to prevent that.

Result

The results of Muybridge’s experiments were perceived by many as spectacular, but the method of photography was very cumbersome. Others began to think about a better way to capture and show motion.

So did Eadweard himself. In fact, he had become obsessed with capturing and analyzing moving animals and people, from which he produced many new mini-movies. Within that framework he came up with another invention in 1879, the zoöpraxiscope. This showed copied photographs that were depicted on a glass disc. If the disc was rotated rapidly, the illusion of moving images was created.

Basically, this was the first film projector as it was the first device to project moving images instead of still ones. However, the possibilities were very limited and in fact this too was an optical toy. Nevertheless, Muybridge was clearly laying a foundation for the invention of film.

The kinetoscope

However, it would be more convenient to have one camera that manages to take lots of pictures in a row and a projector that can play back these sequences. The first device that came close to this description was the so-called kinetoscope, also known as a “viewing box. It was a coin-operated device for fairgrounds and amusement parks: in exchange for your coin, you could watch a short film through a kind of viewer. This was not yet a fully-fledged cinema, but it did make an important step from optical toys for home use to screenings for a wider audience.

The kinetoscope was conceived in the early 1890s by William Dickson, an employee of Edison. In 1894, they received the patent together. Edison would go to great lengths to promote the device and become wedded to cinema for the rest of his life.

Not perfect

There were some drawbacks to the kinetoscope, though. The films were very short, often only about 20 seconds, and only one person could watch the film at a time. Still, it was a fun device that would serve at amusement parks and fairs until the 1960s.

On film, however, it was soon surpassed by the cinematographer. Except for one thing. When the kinetoscope was in use, perforated celluloid of 35mm width was already being used. This was what was later called ‘film’. For a long time that format was the only one used in the film world. No wonder. The celluloid film was first developed in 1889 by the Kodak of George Eastman, a friend of Edison.

The cinematograph: all-in-one

It was the brothers Auguste (1862-1954)and Louis (1864-1948) Lumière who invented the cinematograph or ‘cinématographe’. In doing so, Louis was the technical brain and Auguste the business one. They were the sons of a Lyon-based manufacturer of photographic items and thus had grown up with photography. After the invention of the kinetoscope, they immediately conceived the idea of improving it. This produced a result that was beyond all expectations. On February 13, 1895, they received the patent.

The cinematograph could show moving images projected onto a background, usually a wall. This meant that several people could watch the show at the same time.

On March 22, 1895, the very first images were shown. On December 28 of that same year was the first paid performance. After that, things moved at lightning speed. By January 1896, 4,000 visitors a day were already coming to see the new miracle for themselves.

Clever device

The cinematographer was a particularly clever device that was camera, developer and projector all in one. So it first recorded the images, then developed them and could then show them. It also had a handy size of only five kilograms and required no electricity. This made it especially suitable for traveling around and entertaining people throughout Europe and later the rest of the world.

In the cinematograph, the film was held still while it was projected. Each time the next image was slid into place, a shutter obscured the film for a moment. The speed of this was high enough to suggest movement.

The cinema

German brothers Max (1863-1938) and Emil Skladanowski were close to going down in history as the great inventors of film. Practically at the same time as the Lumière brothers, they were working on film cameras and projectors. On November 1, 1895, a month and a half before their French competitors, they showed their first film to the public with a device called the Bioscop.

This projector was a great advance on everything that had preceded it, but clumsy compared to the cinematograph presented not much later. It required two rolls of film and a separate camera to shoot the films. Later, Max in particular would drastically improve their equipment, but to no avail. The brothers became a footnote in the history of film.

But not entirely. After all, with their invention they may not have laid the foundations for the cinema, but they did lay the groundwork for the cinema as a venue for screening films and a system in which the camera, development equipment and separate devices were all separate. And that idea, after a period of itinerant film screenings, would yet gain firm ground and bear the name the Skladanowski’s had coined.

The Warwick Cinema, also known as Urban Cinema, circa 1900. This was designed by Walter Isaacs in 1897. Here, film camera and projector are still integrated, but the beginnings of the contemporary projector are clearly visible. It is thus an intermediate step between cinematograph and stand-alone equipment.

Eventually, the cinema was also given its own technical set-up, so that projection could take place to the maximum. For example, a special light box was installed for the illumination of the film. Arc lamps were used for this purpose.