Thomas Edison and his Moving Pictures


“To invent you need a good imagination and a pile of junk “– This is how Thomas Edison received a patent for the Kinetographic camera, a device for viewing moving pictures without sound. Edison patented this invention on August 1891. The camera was a giant step forward from the kinetoscope, which was not regarded as a significant invention by Thomas Edison. Kinetoscope comes from the Greek words “Kineto” meaning “movement” and “scopos” meaning “to watch”.


The camera was based on photographic principles and used celluloid films indicating the film width to be 35mm and the possibility of using a cylinder for future upgrades. This movie camera took still pictures like a regular camera and when one viewed these pictures at a very fast rate, they looked like they were in motion. However, this basic idea was already developed by British photographer Eadward Muybridge who developed an ingenious system for photographing sequential motion across a racetrack and proved his point that when a horse ran, all four of its legs could be up in the air at once.  In a Kinetoscope (peephole viewer) one person at a time would pay five cents to watch a short, silent movie about 20 to 30 seconds long. The first Kinetoscope parlor was opened on April 14th 1894 at 1155 Broadway in New York City. Thomas Edison’s first ever moving pictures were commonly called “Fred Ott’s Sneeze”.


Thomas Edison and his assistant W.K.L. Dickson continued their experiments with motion pictures and the invention was soon replaced by screen projectors, wherein more than one person could view the novel silent movies at a time. They built a stage out of wood planks and tar paper, with a roof that could be opened to let in daylight. The building looked like a police wagon, therefore it was referred to as the Black Maria.


These early films were short-length as it was a common perception that people will not be able to bare the ‘Flickers’ beyond 10 minutes . Edison produced between 200 to 300 films at the Black Maria including many of those found in the Thomas Edison Motion Pictures collection of the Library of Congress. The final product was formally introduced to the public on May 9th 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science.


Authored by Anjali Santhosh.