First Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures

Moving pictures were developed during the early 1890’s by several different inventors, including Thomas Alva Edison, whose kinetoscope was a peep-show device accommodating one viewer at a time. The Lumière brothers’ cinematograph, by contrast, projected a moving image onto a screen so that many spectators could view it at once. When the device was first used to entertain a paying audience in a Paris café, the cinema was born.

Summary of Event

When Eadweard Muybridge visited Thomas Alva Edison on February 25, 1888, in Orange, New Jersey, he showed the famous inventor his zoöpraxiscope, Zoöpraxiscope a machine that projected images onto a screen in such a way as to create the illusion that they were moving, and the two men discussed combining that machine with Edison’s phonograph. Edison planned to call the new invention a kinetoscope, Kinetoscope meaning “moving view,” but the combination did not succeed. The following year, Edison gave William Dickson, a photographer who worked with Edison on his experiments, the task of creating a device that would combine moving images with recorded sound. Dickson was to make a device involving moving photographic images, however, unlike the hand-painted images of the zoöpraxiscope. While traveling in Europe, Edison also met Étienne-Jules Marey Marey, Étienne-Jules , who had photographed a continuous series of images on a film Film;and motion pictures[Motion pictures] strip that passed before a single camera lens. Motion pictures
Photography;and motion pictures[Motion pictures]
Lumière, August
Lumière, Louis
Dickson, William
Edison, Thomas Alva
[p]Edison, Thomas Alva;and motion pictures[Motion pictures]
[kw]First Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures (Dec. 28, 1895)
[kw]Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures, First (Dec. 28, 1895)
[kw]Projection of Motion Pictures, First Commercial (Dec. 28, 1895)
[kw]Motion Pictures, First Commercial Projection of (Dec. 28, 1895)
[kw]Pictures, First Commercial Projection of Motion (Dec. 28, 1895)
Motion pictures
Photography;and motion pictures[Motion pictures]
Lumière, August
Lumière, Louis
Dickson, William
Edison, Thomas Alva
[p]Edison, Thomas Alva;and motion pictures[Motion pictures]
[g]France;Dec. 28, 1895: First Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures[6080]
[g]United States;Dec. 28, 1895: First Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures[6080]
[c]Motion pictures;Dec. 28, 1895: First Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures[6080]
[c]Inventions;Dec. 28, 1895: First Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures[6080]
[c]Science and technology;Dec. 28, 1895: First Commercial Projection of Motion

[c]Photography;Dec. 28, 1895: First Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures[6080]
Porter, Edwin S.
Méliès, Georges
Muybridge, Eadweard
Marey, Étienne-Jules

Marey’s ideas were used by Dickson and his assistant, William Heise. The two created a camera that used a .75 inch strip of film that was exposed by means of a horizontal-feed system, utilizing a row of perforations on the bottom edge of the band. On May 20, 1891, Edison demonstrated a peep-hole viewing machine that featured Dickson on camera bowing, smiling, and taking off his hat. In three months, Edison submitted patents for “his” kinetograph (the camera) and kinetoscope (the peep-hole viewing device). The following year, Edison and Dickson made a vertical-feed motion picture camera that used 1.5-inch film strips. They employed this device to make more experimental films, one of which featured Dickson and Heise congratulating each other on their invention.

Edison in 1892 constructed the first dedicated motion picture studio, the Black Maria (named for its resemblance to contemporary black police wagons), and he shifted to commercial filmmaking. Blacksmith Scene, one of his early films, was demonstrated at the Brooklyn Brooklyn;motion picture demonstration Institute on May 9, 1893. Edison marketed his kinetoscope Kinetoscope machines and the films to be shown in them to penny arcades and other such venues in large cities, where they became extremely popular despite the brevity of the films, which lasted less than twenty seconds each. As the novelty of an image in motion wore off, however, the popularity of the new devices began to wane. Meanwhile, the cinematograph of August and Louis Lumière, a device which projected moving images onto a screen, was becoming popular in France.

Edison initially resisted screen projection for simple economic reasons. Since each of his peep-show devices only occupied a single viewer at a time, he could easily sell a half-dozen or more kinetoscopes to each venue. A venue using motion picture projectors would need at most two such devices, so Edison believed that his machine sales would plummet if he switched to projection. He failed, at first, to take into account the extent to which the content of the films themselves could drive a motion picture industry. Films of the 1890’s were often demonstrations of technology rather than aesthetic objects—and this was far more true of Edison’s films than of the Lumières’ films.

Just as Edison, despite the pioneering work of other people, received most of the credit for the development of the motion picture in America, August and Louis Lumière have been regarded as the inventors of French film, although they, too, had been preceded by other inventors. Among the most significant of the earlier French inventors was Lèon Bouly, who in 1893 secured a patent for his cinematograph but could not pay the yearly patent fee. The enterprising Antoine Lumière—father of Louis and August who had had one of his employees take apart the Edison kinetoscope Kinetoscope —picked up Bouly’s patent and the term “cinematograph” and took out a patent for his sons. The brothers should be credited, however, for developing the motion picture business in France. Above all, they should be credited for the quality of the films they produced.

The cinematograph, an incredibly efficient, boxlike device, was actually three devices in one. It was a camera, a film processor, and a projector, and it was still compact enough to be easily portable. The Lumières began making films with the device at the end of 1894, and they gave technical demonstrations of motion picture projection beginning in March, 1895. Their most famous exhibition, however, was the evening of short films they presented on December 28, 1895, at the Grand Café, in the Boulevard des Capucines, Paris. This presentation is generally credited as being the first projection of motion pictures onto a screen for a paying audience and therefore as the beginning of the motion picture industry. There is evidence, however, that an exhibition given by German motion picture inventors Max and Emil Skladanowsky may deserve that title, as it may have occurred more than a month earlier.

The Lumières’ films were short, like Edison’s, and like his, they were concerned with everyday life. The earliest films of both producers fall into the category of “actualities,” a now-forgotten genre of nonfictional films resembling extremely short documentaries in which the point is merely to show a brief scene from life. As Edison had filmed workers (in Blacksmith Scene, for example), the Lumières’ first film, La Sortie des usines Lumière (1895; workers leaving the Lumière factory), was typical of their films. Among the most striking of those early films was L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat (1895; the arrival of a train at Ciotat station). Some spectators reportedly reacted to the latter film as though the train were coming directly at them. While the earliest Lumière films were set in France, the brothers began to venture to other parts of the world to make their films, bringing actualities of exotic locales back to France.

Edison eventually recognized the need to compete with the projectors invented by others, including those of the Lumière brothers and the Skladanowsky brothers. Edison’s employees found an answer to this competition in the phantoscope, a machine that had an intermittent action that stopped each frame in front of the light source, making modern film projection possible. The machine’s inventors, Francis Jenkins Jenkins, Francis and Thomas Armat Armat, Thomas , quarreled, and Armat took the machine to Edison, who renamed it the “vitascope,” Vitascope emphasizing its ability to capture life. Edison’s reputation as the Wizard of Menlo Park, as well as the new name he gave the device, provided the vitascope with commercial viability.

The vitascope was introduced on April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, where six films were shown, all of them quite short, ten or fifteen seconds being the maximum length. Production shifted from the Black Maria, where the popular May Irwin Kiss (1896) was filmed, to the outdoors when the Edison Company created a new, portable camera. Herald Square, Central Park, and Elevated Railway, 23rd Street New York were all actualities, similar to the Lumière films popular in Europe (and soon, six weeks later, to make their debut in America).

Both Edison’s vitascope Vitascope and the Lumières’ cinematograph were shown internationally before 1900. In 1896, for example, Lumière films Motion pictures;in India[India] shown in Bombay were the first films to be exhibited in India. The Lumières also influenced Edison’s filmmakers. Employers Leaving Factory (1896) was an American remake of the earlier Lumière film, and indeed, such “remakes” of the films of others were quite common in the early years of cinema. Film historian Charles Musser believes that the device of mounting a camera on a train in Edison’s Niagara Falls, Gorge (1896) was inspired by the Lumières’ Grand Canal, Venice (1896). The Lumière comedy L’Arroseur arrosée (1896; the waterer watered) was particularly influential. Now commonly thought of as the first fiction film, the first narrative film, and the first comedy, it was twice adapted and modified by Edison’s company. Lumière military scenes and illustrations of news stories were also quickly adapted by Edison filmmakers.

In fact, the Lumière cinematograph, which showed films at Keith’s Union Square Theater in New York New York City;motion picture theaters , was strong competition for Edison, whose equipment was simply not its equal. The highest-quality American films were made by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (commonly known as Biograph). Edison’s films were shown at his Eden Musée, also located in New York. Film in 1896-1897 was still a novelty and often competed with or supplemented vaudeville. Edison had a great deal of American competition, especially with Biograph, which had been associated with Dickson, who had created the mutoscope (another peep-show device). Edison resorted to patents, despite the fact that his inventions were hardly original, and then to litigation, as he attempted to take control of the film business.

By 1900, filmmaking had not changed a great deal; editing and various cinematic effects such as the iris did not become common until after 1900, when Edwin S. Porter Porter, Edwin S. , who had worked on Edison’s machines, became involved in production and directing. Porter, who would become the director of Edison’s most famous and popular films, had seen Georges Méliès’s Méliès, Georges fantasy narrative film La Voyage dans la lune (1902; the trip to the moon). He understood the importance of a story line, and in 1902-1903, he produced four story films, including the highly regarded Great Train Robbery (1903) and Life of an American Fireman(1902-1903), the latter of which was modeled after a magic lantern show of the same name.

Porter also understood the reluctance of film exhibitors to accept premade story films: They did not want to cede creative control to film producers, at a time when each exhibitor was accustomed to assembling his or her own unique show, rather than offering a standardized product. Some of the earliest narrative films, for example, were sold shot by shot. Exhibitors could buy as many or as few shots as they liked and assemble them to create films of varying lengths. Porter Porter, Edwin S. helped standardize the earliest conventions of film editing and narrative by persuading some film exhibitors to purchase and project multishot films that had been assembled by the filmmaker in advance. Once that step had been accomplished, it was possible for a conventional cinematic language to be invented, and the art of cinema had truly begun.


The evolution of film editing and narrative conventions—so central to the history of cinema as an art form—was slow at first, but between roughly 1907 and 1917, what is now known as classical cinema developed. By that time, the actualities so popular between 1895 and around 1904 had largely been replaced by narrative films. It is easy, then, to discount the earliest films of 1895-1896 as merely proofs of concept for the technology rather than artistic works in themselves. The films of August and Louis Lumière, however, clearly fall in the latter category. The care with which they were composed and the sheer beauty they retain more than one hundred years later speak to the depth of the Lumières’ accomplishment and mark them as the first true filmmakers.

Further Reading

  • Abel, Richard. The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Exhaustive study of French cinema from its inception until World War I.
  • Burch, Noël. Life to Those Shadows. Translated and edited by Ben Brewster. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. An extremely important examination of emergent cinema on its own terms, understanding it as an art in its own right, distinct from the classical cinema that followed rather than merely a primitive attempt at such an art.
  • Elsaesser, Thomas, with Adam Barker, eds. Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. London: BFI, 1990. An anthology of short essays by all of the most important and influential theorists of early cinema, including Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, Charles Musser, Noël Burch, André Gaudreault, and others.
  • Hendricks, Gordon. Origins of the American Film. New York: Arno Press, 1972. Attempts to give due credit to William Dickson, whom Hendricks believes to be responsible for Edison’s motion picture camera.
  • Musser, Charles, “At the Beginning: Motion Picture, Production, Representation, and Ideology at the Edison and Lumière Studios.” In The Silent Cinema Reader, edited by Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer. New York: Routledge, 2004. Some material is similar to Musser’s work in his own book, but this essay includes much new material on the Lumières.
  • _______. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Focuses on Porter’s role in the development of cinema; Musser devotes the third chapter of his book to Edison from 1888 to 1895.
  • Phillips, Ray. Edison’s Kinetoscope and Its Films: A History to 1896. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Thorough treatment of the films (all of which are listed, with many described) made by Edison’s film company.
  • Whissel, Kristen. “The Gender of Empire: American Modernity, Masculinity, and Edison’s War Actualities.” In A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, edited by Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. Places Edison’s early war actualities in the context of modernity, American imperialism, and gender.

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Photography;and motion pictures[Motion pictures]
Lumière, August
Lumière, Louis
Dickson, William
Edison, Thomas Alva
[p]Edison, Thomas Alva;and motion pictures[Motion pictures]