WHO? WHAT? WHEN? WHERE? A mini chronology of the start of cinema

Pettifogging. He said I was “pettifogging”. Suddenly I knew how it must have felt to be get a slapped wrist from Charles Dickens.

Secretly though, I was delighted. I love the word and hadn’t heard it used in years. It was a classy way to be criticised. You see, “pettifogging” means focussing on trivial or irrelevant detail – often in an attempt to win an argument. It’s a pejorative, applied to dodgy lawyers in years gone by. Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad, for instance, is a modern pettifogger writ large.

It was my article for Sight & Sound about the complex story of cinema’s beginnings, which relegated the Lumière brothers role, along with a blog post where I accused some of their modern supporters of ugly national chauvinism, that had brought this antique epithet down upon my head. You won’t be surprised to hear that, much as like the word, I feel it has been misapplied here.

I work hard to make sure anything I write – in a newspaper, magazine or blog – is as well-researched as possible, with statements I can stand behind. It is, if anything, the opposite of pettifogging: it is bringing into view verifiable historical information that has been ignored or pushed aside by lazy histories and mythmaking. These are the same kind of research processes that are bringing to light the greater role women played in many historical achievements. You take a close look at the evidence rather than simply parroting what has been said before. There’s nothing petty or, indeed, foggy about that (and yes, etymologists, I know that probably wasn’t the meaning of the ‘foggy’ part but let me have it).

That said, I appreciate that it may be hard to assimilate that things are quite as different from the accepted version as I am claiming. So, I thought that one thing that might help is to lay out a little chronology of 15 busy months that led into the start of an international moving picture industry. I’m focussing mainly on the people I discussed in that article, with a few others mentioned for good measure. At the end, I’ve put some notes about my process and the criteria for inclusion.

So, take a look and, when you get to the bottom, ask yourself this: if one was to cut out all the entries about the Lumières, what would be left? I would say: the start of the film industry, happening at the same point in time – as could be said of any one of the other players.



Britain: Birt Acres begins work with Robert Paul to create a motion picture film camera in London.

USA: The Lambda team in New York carry out their first camera test. It’s a success. They are also developing a projector.

France: Louis Lumière and Charles Moisson work on a prototype camera/projector in Lyon. They carry out tests on paper negative film.


Test film shot in Barnet by Birt Acres in March 1895

USA: Charles Francis Jenkins, who has demonstrated a motion picture camera and a projector of his design in 1894, signs an agreement with Thomas Armat to develop a projector.

France: the Lumières shoot their first successful test on celluloid: Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory and screen it at the end of a presentation of their photographic work to the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale. Their device is described as a “projecting kinetoscope”.

Britain: Acres & Paul shoot their first successful test film on celluloid, swiftly followed by their first subject to be available for the Kinetoscope: The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race 1895. It is the first actuality film ever put on sale.

NOTE: Both the Lumières and Acres & Paul will use celluloid roll film from the European Blair Company in England over the next 12 months.


Britain: Acres shoots a number of subjects, both actuality and staged scenes, which Paul advertises for sale, including Railway Station Scene.

USA: The Lambda team present their work in progress to journalists, projecting a film in their workshop.


Poster for the first Eidoloscope shows, May 1895

USA: The Lambda team shoot an eight-minute boxing bout with their camera, now named the “Eidolograph”, on the roof of Madison Square Garden. They convert a storefront at 156 Broadway into a screening room for their “Eidoloscope” projector and open to paying customers on 20th May 1895. These are the first commercial shows of projected film in the world.

France: Now with an improved device, christened the “Cinématographe”, after the 1892/3 moving picture camera/projector of Léon Bouly, the Lumières begin shooting a series of films, including re-shooting Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.

Britain: Birt Acres films the Epsom Derby and Rough Sea at Dover.

NOTE: The Lambda Eidoloscope/graph used 51mm film and a widescreen format. The camera could take 1000-foot (305m) loads of film, shooting at speeds of around 30 fps (frames per second). The cameras of the Lumières and Paul & Acres ran at around 15 fps, with a capacity of 50 ft (17m) and stuck with the “Edison format” for the Kinetoscope: 35mm film with a squarer 1.33:1 picture, albeit with distinct perforations. The Jenkins & Armat projector was for the standard Edison format.


Britain: The fractious partnership of Paul and Acres is unravelling. Acres visits Germany, where he shoots a considerable number of films for the Stollwerck company over the following months.

France: Charles Pathé, impatient for more new films for his Kinetoscope parlour, concludes an agreement with Henri Joly to manufacture a moving picture camera. Pathé will go on to build one of the most important film companies in the world.

USA: After six months’ work, Herman Casler and Harry Marvin carry out a successful test of their “Mutograph” camera with celluloid film. This will evolve into the internationally successful “Biograph”, taking stunning images of near-Imax size for both projection and the Mutoscope viewer in 1896. Meanwhile, the Lambda team continue to shoot a variety of actuality subjects and staged performances over the coming months.


From Version 2 of those workers leaving

France: The Lumières stage a show of ten films for invited guests and journalists in the offices of the Revue Générale des Sciences. Detailed and effusive accounts appear in the scientific press and mainstream French publications, whilst brief reports are published outside France in September.

Germany: The Skladanowsky Brothers give the first public demonstration of their system, the “Bioscop”, at Café Sello, Berlin, showing a series of filmed performance subjects. They have a camera that takes 65mm film, printed onto 54mm for their twin-lens projector. It is likely that the system was developed, and the films shot, over a period stretching back a year or more.

USA: The Eidoloscope opens in Chicago.

Britain: Acres has officially split from Paul, keeping the camera, and signs a contract with Stollwerck that includes making a coin-operated machine which rear-projects films onto a viewing screen, to be named the “Elektroskop”.


Early version of the Jenkins & Armat Phantoscope projector

USA: Jenkins & Armat’s “Phantoscope” projector is presented to paying customers at the Atlanta Cotton States Exhibition. They build two adjacent auditoria with a shared projection booth for two projectors. This is the first known time that a purpose-built viewing space with a separate projection booth was ever attempted. It could therefore be considered the first “cinema” (as such structures would eventually be known). Outside the exhibition, the Eidoloscope is simultaneously playing in Atlanta.

Britain: Birt Acres has been working on a projector and stages private test screenings.


The Skladanowskys take an on-camera bow. Very meta for 1895.

Germany: The Skladanowsky Brothers present a programme of nine films at the Berlin Wintergarten, with an original musical score. These are the first film shows to a paying audience held in Europe.

USA: The Eidoloscope opens in Minneapolis.


USA: After an angry breakdown in their partnership, Armat presents the Phantoscope projector to agents for Edison as his solo invention, whilst Jenkins does likewise at the Franklin Institute. The Eidoloscope opens in Detroit and Philadelphia.

Germany: Birt Acres signs an agreement with Stollwerck to deliver film projectors at the start of January. The Skladanowsky Bioscop opens in Hamburg.

France: The Lumières stage their first Cinématographe shows to a paying public in the Salon Indien, below the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard de Capucines, Paris. It’s a hit with the public and is heavily reported in the press, both in France and abroad. These are the first commercial film shows in France.



Some of that rough sea

Britain: Birt Acres presents his “Kinetic Lantern” projector to several photographic organisations, including the Royal Photographic Society, showing a wide range of films. It is greeted enthusiastically, with Rough Sea at Dover singled out for praise, described as “a masterpiece”.

France: The Cinématographe opens in Lyon.

USA: The Eidoloscope opens in Rochester, NY.

Germany: The Bioscop opens in Pankow, Berlin.


Britain: The Lumière Cinématographe begins a run at the Regent Street Polytechnic, London. Robert Paul presents his “Theatrograph” projector at the Royal Institution, showing many of the same films as Acres.

Germany: The Bioscop opens in Halle.

France: The Lumière Cinématographe opens in Bordeaux and Nice.


Signs outside the Alhambra announce the Animatographe

Britain: The Lumière Cinématographe joins the bill at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square and proves very popular. The Paul Theatrograph opens at the Egyptian Hall and in the Palmarium of the Olympia exhibition. Renamed as the “Animatographe” it also opens at the Alhambra, Leicester Square, in direct competition with the Cinématographe. Paul sells his projectors to showmen in Britain and abroad – one screens films in Brighton. Meanwhile, Birt Acres first shows films at his “Kineopticon”, a dedicated venue at Piccadilly Circus. His Kineopticon also opens at the Empire Theatre in Newcastle.

USA: The Eidoloscope opens in Syracuse.

Germany: The Bioscop tours central Germany.

France: The Cinématographe opens in further Paris venues, as well as Bordeaux, Reims and Marseille.

Around Europe: The Cinématographe opens in Brussels, Vienna, Amsterdam, Milan, Naples and Rome.


Norway: The Bioscop opens in Oslo.

Spain: The Theatrograph opens in Madrid.

Britain: The Theatrograph is taken up by several other London venues. Hand-coloured films are shown at the Alhambra. The Rigg & Kumberg “Kinematograph” opens at the Royal Aquarium, London.

The Paul projector as Méliès camera in the Cinémathèque Française

France: Georges Méliès begins screening films at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris, using a Theatrograph projector bought off Robert Paul. He then adapts another Theatrograph into a camera and begins shooting his own films. The Lumière Cinématographe opens in Saint-Étienne and Rouen.

Germany: The Cinématographe opens in Cologne.

Belgium: The Cinématographe opens in Antwerp.

USA: The Armat & Jenkins Phantoscope, now rebadged as the Edison “Vitascope” opens to acclaim at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall, New York. The most talked about film is Birt Acres’ Rough Sea at Dover. Two other Acres films are on the initial bill, alongside Edison productions.

The Atlantic Ocean: American magician Carl Hertz gives the first shipboard film show, on the SS Norman en route for South Africa, with a Theatrograph he has bought from Robert Paul. From Rough Sea to rough seas…


I’m stopping at April 1896 because so many other cameras, projectors and combinations of the two started springing up all over Europe and the USA at that point. Moving pictures were exploding. When the Cinématographe opens in New York at the end of June, it is running against both the Vitascope and the Eidoloscope, with the Kineopticon and the Animatographe/Theatrograph soon to follow, among others.

Dates: The main players here were all working without any knowledge of each other for a considerable time, so depicting them as being in some day-by-day race against each other is absurd. For instance, shortly before their first public show the Lumières heard about a German competitor, booked at the Folies Bergères, but they didn’t know this was the Skladanowsky Brothers. Beyond photographic circles, no one much in France knew about what the Lumières were up to until July 1895 and the rest of the world only heard about it a while later. The others knew little or nothing about what Birt Acres and Robert Paul had done until 1896. And so on. So, I have grouped events in months by country, rather than a day-by-day chronology, to make parallel activities clearer.

Inventors: Although there were many more inventors in the field, since this is about the beginnings of film as a business, so I am confining myself to those known to be commercially active in 1895 – i.e., actually earning money from the making and/or showing of films – or who were taking important steps down that road. Georges Demeny should be in there – it was just hard to specify where.

Patents: I have left out all dates of patents as these discussions are a bit tedious for the world at large and were mainly relevant in legal battles. The problem is that the registering of a patent can be very misleading. It can mean everything from having already successfully completed the device to putting forward an idea for something that will never be completed. Also, how quickly and soon patenting happens in the process may depend on how rich the inventor is. Industrialists like Edison and the Lumières had well-oiled machines for patenting. Individual inventors might save their money until the idea is further developed – or be told to wait, as happened to the Skladanowskys when the directors of the Wintergarten told them they couldn’t take out a patent until their shows started, to keep it secret.

Screenings: I’m not listing every press show and private screenings, just key moments. My focus is on the story of how and when the public came to see motion pictures.

Checking: I have gone to the best available sources I know of to compile this. However, the best reference of all is the historian Deac Rossell, who arguably has a better picture of the international development of motion pictures than anyone in the world. He published A Chronology of Early Cinema 1889-1896 in 1995 but has been updating, amending and broadening it ever since. He kindly agreed to look over my far humbler offering, and I’ve added and altered items at his suggestion (but any remaining errors are mine!). If you would like to know more – and I mean a lot more – then you’ll be pleased to hear that he is publishing a totally revised and greatly expanded Chronology of the Birth of Cinema 1832-1896, to be available from John Libbey Publishing towards the end of this year. It will have a prime place on my bookshelf. If you can’t wait that long, there’s a shorter chronology HERE

Peter Domankiewicz

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