Happy 125th Birthday, Cinema! Part 2

In Part 1 we heard how the Lathams were behind a movie camera that left those of Edison and the Lumière Brothers looking very limited. Now we find out what happened when they beat those two firms to the screen…

The Plan Comes Together

So, the Lambda camera had advantages over both the Edison and Lumière versions – but what was the benefit? Well, it meant they could put much longer, larger loads of film in and therefore shoot without stopping. Instead of 17 seconds of a dance, you could see the whole thing. Instead of a truncated round of boxing in a miniaturised ring, you could film several rounds played out in a full-sized one. You could record outdoor events or perhaps a play – and see it in widescreen with more natural-looking movement. If it all worked, that is.

With Woodville Latham laid up in bed, Otway and Lauste ran a technical test of the new camera at the end of February 1895, with Dickson coming along to help. It was a success. Whilst improving on the camera, they also carried on developing a projector, in which the film would move continuously, as in the Kinetoscope.

Lathams Lauste at Frankfort St with Eidoloscope - 2500 Years - Will Day book edit
The 35 Frankfort St. workshop. From Right: Otway Latham, Gray Latham, Eugene Lauste. On the left, looking out of the window: Woodville Latham

By April, Edison’s business manager, William Gilmore, had got wind of Dickson’s association and challenged him over it. Affronted, Dickson told Edison that he had to choose between Gilmore and himself. Edison opted for Gilmore and Dickson’s glittering career in West Orange was abruptly over.

That same month, the Lambda team were excited and confident enough to bring a journalist to the workshop to reveal what they were up to. They showed a film taken up on the roof showing Lauste’s son Emile messing about with a workshop assistant whilst Lauste senior, Gray and Woodville Latham looked on. The projection was only about “the size of a sash window” but the journalist was most struck by the realistic movement of the smoke from Woodville’s pipe.

Panoptikon sketch from New York Sun Latham
A sketch from the article in the New York Sun

Edison expressed his outrage to the reporter at what he termed “a fraud”. Woodville Latham riposted in print, “If Mr. Edison can project pictures of moving objects on a screen, as he says he can, why does he not do it as publicly as I have done, and do it at once?”. But Edison couldn’t and he knew it. Undeterred, the team moved fast.

Sketches of series of frames of Griffo-Barnett fight Eidoloscope The_Brooklyn_Daily_Eagle_Wed__May_8__1895_ p4 cleaned
Sketches of series of frames from the Griffo-Barnett film

On May 4th they filmed a four-round boxing bout between the Australian “Young Griffo” (Albert Griffiths) and “Battling” Charles Barnett of New York City on the roof of Madison Square Garden in front of an audience of twenty-five and anyone watching from the adjacent Park Avenue and Waldorf hotels.  Otway Latham and Dickson were on camera duty. They shot continuously for twelve minutes and the results were as good as they had hoped.

Up until now, their system had not had a name but now they came up with something suitably exotic and scientific-sounding: The Eidoloscope. As I recounted in a blogpost, this was the title of a widely published 1890 story by an early science fiction writer, about a machine that can project images of the past. The camera, in turn, was called the Eidolograph.

The First Public Film Show

Bryan L. Kennelly real estate office in the Haight Building, 156 Broadway, New York City, June 7, 1914 from dcmny.org
156 Broadway in 1914. The building still stands.

They rented a storefront at 156 lower Broadway and on Monday May 20th, 125 years ago, they officially opened the doors to the public. In fact, it seems they had a test run two days earlier, with Otway signing his name on the first 25¢ ticket sold. They did little promotion, probably for lack of resources, but the punters came and engaged vocally with what they saw on screen, as if at the ringside. For this had the look and feel of real boxing rather than the artificial play-acting of the Edison bouts.

Dickson’s former employer would not have been pleased with the news reports declaring “EDISON IS NOT IN IT – Kinetoscope Outclassed by Prof Latham’s Newest” and stressing how much better it was than watching tiny, brief sequences whilst getting a crick in your neck.

roadsheet for the Latham eidoloscope, dated May 1895. Image and date courtesy of Ryan Lintelman and the Smithsonian Insitute's National Museum of American History edited - lower qualityWithin a short time, they also filmed one of the first pieces of actuality, entitled “The Sidewalks of New York”, which showed “an Italian grinding away at a hand-organ, children dancing, boys playing craps etc”. The title was also that of a popular song and when projected it was accompanied by music.

This was followed by film of a popular horse race, the Suburban Handicap (Robert Paul would have a huge hit the next year with the 1896 Derby). Then they filmed some wrestling matches and a popular vaudeville act, the Nichols Sisters, doing their acrobatic dance routine.

All of the Eidoloscope films appear to be lost. The only traces ever published are a few tattered fragments of a single second of a wrestling match. However, I recently unearthed a sequence of twenty frames of the Nichols sisters, published in a general interest magazine for women. Now I’m a strong believer that even tiny fragments of film can tell you a lot more when you see them in motion, so I set about re-animating this sequence. It appears to be the “kiss-off” at the end of their act:

I have reproduced the film at 25fps, but suspect it was shot slightly faster than that. Obviously, the image quality is only that of magazine reproduction, but nonetheless one has an immediate sense of how fluid and stable the camera was and the possibilities of the wider frame, compared with the cramped choreography for the Kinetoscope. Indeed, the fragments of the wrestling bout also pay testament to the faster running speeds and steady framing of the Eidolograph.

Problems, Problems, Problems

Film strip from Eidoloscope Latham - poss wrestling on rooftop
One of two wrestling bouts filmed in July 1895

But the truth is, whilst the Eidolograph camera seems to have done a great job, the same cannot be said of either the Eidoloscope projector or the Lathams themselves.

Although their projection system could handle long running films, it only allowed the briefest flashes of each frame, as the film was in continuous motion. That made it an enormous challenge to get enough light on the screen. Like Edison, they were wedded to the wonder of the age: electric light. But electricity could not be had everywhere, and supplies varied from street to street and moment to moment. Early reports of the arrival of the Eidoloscope in various US cities frequently mention issues around electrical supply.

But technical problems could be resolved with the right leadership – and that was not the forte of Otway or Gray Latham who fancied themselves as playboys and were perhaps more drawn to the high life than hard business. Their management had been chaotic. Despite a generous share offer, Dickson did not throw his lot in with the Lathams. Instead, he took Lauste with him to become part of a new project, which would become known as the Mutoscope and Biograph. Enoch Rector and Samuel Tilden chose to go their own way. New finance was found and a new company formed, but now the Lathams were no longer directors, just employees. The Eidoloscope did get around to several cities, but there were not enough regular new films to retain interest, nor the contacts to get in the best places. Despite improvements to the projector, the system disappeared after being bought up by the Vitagraph Company in 1897.

What Could Have Been

Edison meanwhile had continued to flail and fail at the issue of projecting films for a year after the launch of the Eidoloscope. In the end, with the Lumières coming over the horizon hoping to clean up in the market, he bought in the “Phantoscope” projector invented by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat (whose decades-long conflict is another wonderful story), with which they had been projecting Edison films in late 1895. It was rebadged as “The Edison Vitascope” and launched in New York in April 1896, with the Eidoloscope and Cinématographe as direct competition in New York’s major music halls.

Birth of the Movies - 40 years since Vitascope premiere - many pics and docs - Motion Picture Herald April 25 1936 p15 #3
An artist’s imaginative impression of the premiere of the (not really) Edison Vitascope

There’s a key detail of what happened in the lead-up to that launch which is not much noted but fascinates me as a filmmaker. Raff & Gammon, the Kinetoscope agents who had brought the Phantoscope to Edison and sealed the deal for its exploitation, prevailed upon Armat to adapt the system to a wider film format, as the theatre owners were all complaining that the current picture format was too narrow – more than likely, they had seen an Eidoloscope show.

Armat countered that, although not difficult to do, it would take time to reconfigure the projector and since speed was of the essence in beating the Lumières to market Stateside, such changes would have to wait for later. It would be a very long wait. Ironically, the Edison team had, by then, built widescreen cameras: for Enoch Rector who had maintained good relations there and now had his own project on the go.

Torn Lumiere film
Why you need that loop: torn sprockets on a Lumière film

Meanwhile, the Lumière brothers, who would proclaim the originality of their invention to their dying days, had done a remarkably unoriginal thing. Starting, like the Lathams, with a blank page onto which they could have drawn any format of picture and any gauge of film – as it was being manufactured to order – funnily enough settled on a 35mm film width and a 1.33:1 picture ratio. The only divergence was to have one pair of round perforations per frame instead of four pairs of square ones. It was evident that from the very start they had an eye to maximum compatibility with the Edison system. Indeed, within months of the launch of the Cinématographe, their films were also being offered for sale in Edison format.

It’s fascinating to consider what would have happened if the Lathams had done better with the Eidoloscope or if Raff & Gammon had twisted Armat’s arm a bit harder. But hasty decisions driven by the desire for market dominance led to us looking at boxy pictures in cinemas and in the home for an entire century.

It would be some years before cameras carrying loads of 1000 or 2000 feet of film came into use, well after the Eidolograph had disappeared. It would take the firm arrival of sound in the late 1920s before standardised shooting speeds matched how the Nichols Sisters were filmed. And it was not until the 1950s that widescreen imagery was widely seen.

But if you paid your 25 cents at 156 Broadway on 20th May 1895, you could already have it all.

Peter Domankiewicz

First night ad for Eidoloscope at Boston Museum - The_Boston_Globe_Tue__Jun_23__1896_
Ad for the Eidoloscope in June 1896

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