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

If you are an academic or other researcher who would like the citations for these articles, please contact me at info@friesegreene.com

Happy 125th Birthday, Cinema! Part 1

This is going to be an epic ride, so strap in. But it’s a birthday worth celebrating, I promise.

It’s Not Them – Or Him

If people know anything at all about how cinema began, they usually assume it was something to do with Edison or the Lumière brothers. Come December 28th this year we’ll see a rash of articles about the first Lumière show in the basement of a Paris café, 125 years ago.

But the first time people paid money to sit in a darkened room and watch movies projected on a screen wasn’t there or then.

And if people have a picture of what those first, crude movies were like, they visualise a rather boxy frame, the films moving too fast at modern speeds and lasting only about a minute.

But that isn’t how it began or how it was supposed to be. The cinema we eventually arrived at could have been had from the start.

So, I guess you’re wondering: if the Lumières didn’t start the ball rolling, who did? Don’t worry, we’ll get there. It involves a pair of chancers, their disgraced professor dad and a couple of disgruntled Edison employees.

Forget about this. Don’t even look at it. I mean it. Stop!

The Story So Far

So, it’s 1894. Early moving picture inventor/experimenters such as William Friese-Greene, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Georges Demenÿ and Louis le Prince have all crashed and burned in a variety of ways. Last man standing, by dint of financial muscle, is the industrial inventor Thomas Edison and his team. The real brains behind Edison’s operation is William Dickson, who’s now getting frustrated by the lack of credit and imagination at the West Orange works.

After several years of experimentation, they’ve gradually advanced from the utterly impractical idea of recording pinpoint images on a cylinder to following the lead of Marey and Friese-Greene and shooting on a strip of celluloid. These films are to be shown in “Kinetoscopes” – boxes containing loops of film, which are viewed by bending over and looking into a slot. The films are vivid, but are only around 17 seconds long, with very small images. The customer pays per film (or group of films), each seen in a separate Kinetoscope.

The first “Kinetoscope Parlor” opens in New York in April 1894 and they roll out across the US, lapping at European shores in the autumn of the year, the smell of money to be made attracting the attention of Robert Paul in Britain, a certain Antoine Lumiere in France, whose two sons are part of his successful photographic company, and a pair of German brothers in the business of projected entertainment named Skladanowsky.

Kinetoscope parlour in Chicago

An early Kinetoscope parlor. Not the most comfy arrangement for viewing a film.

Back in the USA, Otway Latham, a young, New York based, pharmaceutical salesman from a Virginia family, jumps decisively into the Kinetoscope business in May 1894.

Otway and Gray Latham portrait
Otway and Gray Latham. Pretty smooth guys.

He brings with him his brother Gray, engineer Enoch Rector (a college friend who works for the same company), and his father Woodville Latham whose tenure as Professor of Chemistry, Physics and Agriculture at West Virginia University was troubled, to say the least, and who has since been job-hopping around the States. Bankrolling their nascent business is Samuel Tilden Jr., the owner of said pharmaceutical company.

Otway has a vision for how boxing films could get the money rolling in. A series of miniaturised bouts for his Kinetoscopes does well, but the duration is completely inadequate so he lobbies Edison to come up with an enlarged machine that can at least show a whole minute. The expanded Kinetoscopes which show a series of one-minute boxing rounds are a success, but it’s glaringly obvious to Otway, as it was to so many, that projection is the way to go to really make money from motion pictures. But Edison firmly resists this development, seeing it as a dime-collecting, pay-per-play novelty box.

Woodville Latham portrait
Woodville Latham

So the story goes, Otway asked his scientifically minded father if he thought it was possible to project these films onto a screen, who replied that it absolutely was and set to work figuring out how.

A Plan Is Hatched

During the development of the expanded kinetoscope, Otway had spent plenty of time at the Edison works and had made a point of befriending William Dickson. Unsurprisingly, he tried to draw Dickson into their scheme. Dickson knew that any direct assistance by him could be viewed as “treachery” by Edison but at the same time he too was itching to get the films up on a screen, so he did informally advise.

One of his most important recommendations was that they employ Eugene Lauste, an excellent mechanic who had worked for Edison – although not on the Kinetoscope project – until being fired in 1892. They did, setting up a workshop at 35 Frankfort St, where Lauste also slept.

Young Dickson self-portrait
William Dickson having a Napoleonic moment

Possibly as a precaution to stay under the Edison radar, they didn’t incorporate this new business in New York but back in Richmond, Virginia. They named it the “Lambda Company” after the first letter (in Greek) of their name. All three Lathams were directors.

They could have simply developed a projection machine and then commissioned films to be made for it at West Orange, as they had with the boxing films, but they made an important creative and technical decision to take a different route. They decided to also design a camera and with it an entire new approach.

Only a handful of trusted people had ever seen the insides of the Edison Kinetograph camera and only one existed. The patent for it was still unpublished and Dickson was certainly not going to risk his neck by sharing details. So, the technical team of Woodville Latham, Lauste and Rector had to dream up their own.

The Kinetoscope films had a high running speed of around 40-45fps (frames per second). Making a camera work that fast was a considerable challenge and both the Lumières and Robert Paul & Birt Acres would drop to just a third of that – around 15-16fps. Nonetheless, the Lambda team sought to match it, or at least approach it.

The Edison camera was so big and heavy it could not move outside the funny little studio where it was housed. But the Lambda one would go out and about from the very start.

Gauging The Gauge

Butterfly Dance Edison
An early Kinetoscope film, showing the 1.33:1 format

What we now refer to as “35mm film” is still, near as dammit, what Dickson cooked up in 1892. Earlier experiments had all involved circular images but now he had adopted a modest rectangle: a 3:4 or 1.33:1 ratio, depending how you look at it. Dickson never explained his reasons for choosing this and endless theorising has ensued down the years. In the end it would become standardised and known as “The Academy Ratio”, with slight modifications. Then, when television became commercially viable, the boxy 1.33:1 ratio was transferred there.

Some contemporary filmmakers, such as Andrea Arnold, idolise the Academy Ratio as having special powers, but many others, including myself, find it profoundly limiting and not very aesthetically pleasing. It’s a huge relief to me that the TV and cinema standards are now for wider images, which better reflect the human visual field. Of course, in the early decades of cinema great cinematographers did wonderful things within those limitations, but few modern cinematographers long to return to them, beyond the occasional foray.

Starting with a blank sheet of paper, the Lambda team decided that a larger, wider image was needed for projected film. By increasing the height of each frame slightly whilst making the film 51mm wide, they doubled the picture area, which meant twice the picture quality and twice the amount of light getting through onto a screen. When commercial film shows started in earnest in 1896, the low resolution and dimness of the images would be common criticisms.

But it wasn’t just the quality improvement: the pictures were a radically different format. The projected image had a 1.85:1 ratio, which true cinema nerds will know is the standard, most commonly used “widescreen” ratio of cinema films today – a situation only arrived at after many years of flux. It is also very close to the 16:9 of modern TV.

Picture ratios

The most common picture ratios – from Cinemascope to boxy old TV

Looping The Loop

They didn’t stop there.

There was another major issue, which would hamper the early development of the film industry. The longest film the Edison equipment handled was 150ft, lasting one minute. The Cinématographe, which the Lumières were developing at the same time, could turn 50 feet of film into 50 seconds of screen time, by dropping the running speed, but its design was incapable of handling large loads of film, and significantly greater lengths were unthinkable.

The Lambda team solved the problem off the block. Now this involves a tiny bit of techno-geekery to explain, but I’ll try to make it painless.

As each frame of film goes through the camera or projector, it has to be jerked down into place, held and exposed, then jerked away again as the next frame comes down. And that’s happening many times a second. Now, in early equipment, when the film was jerked down into place, the mechanism was pulling against the whole reel of film that was sitting in there. If your reel is only 50ft (15m) that’s not much weight, so it’s not a big deal. But how are you going to move a modern 1000 ft roll, which weighs a couple of Kilos? The inertia is so great that the film would snap or the sprocket holes rip, or the mechanism would break.

Detail of Latham US patent showing loops in colour
“The Loop” from Woodville Latham’s 1896 projector patent

The answer was surprisingly simple. Whilst one frame is being exposed, feed out the length of the next frame ready, so all you have to pull down is a single frame, weighing a mere 2g or so. Woodville Latham would later embody this principle in a patent, which became known as the “Latham loop”, the rights to which would be bought and sold and fought over in court battles for an extraordinary fifteen years.

But was it really his idea? William Dickson was later very clear in attributing the credit for the idea to Eugene Lauste. Lauste wholeheartedly endorsed this version of events. But perhaps neither of these Edison ex-workers were being completely honest.

In June 1889, as regular readers will know, William Friese-Greene and Mortimer Evans took out a patent for a motion picture camera which would later be widely reported in the USA as well as Britain. By the April of 1890 we know that Dickson was fully acquainted with its particulars and had his own copy of the patent, which he later shared with some collaborators. The patent clearly describes the loop and its uses, whilst articles about the camera homed in on this as one its cleverest features: that whilst one frame was being exposed, a loop of film was paid out which was the exact length for the next frame.

Given that Dickson and Lauste were close and would work together on many projects across decades of their lives, it stretches credulity a very long way to assert that the idea of “the loop” was invented by the Lambda team, rather than acquired from existing sources. It is one of many misnomers of early film history that everyone still talks of “The Latham Loop” instead of “The Friese-Greene Loop”.

FG Machine Camera interior - Mr Friese Greene and his inventions Pt1 - Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly July 8 1909 p416 edit

The Friese-Greene 1889 camera which already embodied “The Loop”

In Part 2 you’ll find out how they staged the first public film show ever and see one of their films in motion for the first time in over 120 years. Go on: you’ll bloody love it.