Goodwin Develops Celluloid Film Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Hannibal Williston Goodwin’s development of flexible celluloid film facilitated the expansion of motion-picture lengths and eventually made possible the development of the feature-length film as a distinct art form.

Summary of Event

In May of 1887, Hannibal Williston Goodwin, rector of the House of Prayer Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey, filed for a patent for “a photographic pellicle and process of producing same . . . in connection with roller cameras.” His patent was granted thirteen years later, after a long court fight with the Eastman Kodak Eastman Kodak Company;film Company over who was the first to develop the concept of celluloid film strips. By then, motion pictures had been invented, and the advent of continuous film rolls allowed the burgeoning technology of film to evolve, as “one-reelers” would become common before 1910, and feature films would develop in the decade after that. Celluloid film Goodwin, Hannibal Williston Motion pictures;and celluloid film[Celluloid film] Film Photography;and film[Film] [kw]Goodwin Develops Celluloid Film (May, 1887) [kw]Develops Celluloid Film, Goodwin (May, 1887) [kw]Celluloid Film, Goodwin Develops (May, 1887) [kw]Film, Goodwin Develops Celluloid (May, 1887) Celluloid film Goodwin, Hannibal Williston Motion pictures;and celluloid film[Celluloid film] Film Photography;and film[Film] [g]United States;May, 1887: Goodwin Develops Celluloid Film[5550] [c]Inventions;May, 1887: Goodwin Develops Celluloid Film[5550] [c]Science and technology;May, 1887: Goodwin Develops Celluloid Film[5550] [c]Motion pictures;May, 1887: Goodwin Develops Celluloid Film[5550] [c]Photography;May, 1887: Goodwin Develops Celluloid Film[5550] Reichenbach, Henry M. Dickson, William Lumière, August Lumière, Louis Méliès, Georges Porter, Edwin S. Williamson, James Edison, Thomas Alva [p]Edison, Thomas Alva;and motion pictures[Motion pictures] Le Prince, Louis

Goodwin, a devoted preacher, became interested in photography as a means of producing illustrations for religious talks and sermons. Various technologies were used to produce illusions of motion during the nineteenth century, including the phenakistoscope, invented by Joseph Plateau, and George Horner’s zoetrope. One of the best-known photographers of motion was Eadweard Muybridge, who photographed horses in motion with a series of cameras and presented the results in a machine he called the zoöpraxiscope Zoöpraxiscope . Like the phenakistoscope and the zoetrope, however, the zoöpraxiscope used drawings rather than photographs to create its illusions. (As a result of the latter device’s method of producing a motion effect, a photographed horse would have looked stunted on the screen, so a hand-drawn, unnaturally elongated horse was used. When projected, the elongated horse looked “normal” to the human eye.)

Most photographic technologies before 1887 were limited by the need to use heavy and fragile glass plates coated with chemical emulsions to register images. Furthermore, prints could not be economically produced from these media, so the images created could not circulated on a mass scale. Indeed, the primary form of projection at the time, the magic lantern show (essentially a slide projector), was associated with the skills of a particular showman in staging a unique and entertaining spectacle. The notion of standardized projection, in which every audience everywhere in the country saw exactly the same images in the same way, was unheard-of.

Celluloid is the name of a class of chemical compounds created from nitrocellulose, a plant material, and camphor, dyes, and other agents. There is some evidence that celluloid was developed in response to the need for a new material to replace ivory in billiard balls. By the late nineteenth century, celluloid was used for a variety of everyday items including collars and cuffs, toys, and pen nibs. As a result of its extreme flammability and instability over time, celluloid was replaced in most applications in the twentieth century by more stable plastics, such as acetates and polyethylenes.

As Eastman Kodak Company;film early as 1885, Eastman Kodak Company was manufacturing flexible photographic film, consisting of chemical emulsion coated on paper. Although this film registered images effectively, it was not transparent and could not be used to make multiple prints. Perhaps because he lived in Newark, New Jersey, the site of a major celluloid manufacturing company, Goodwin conceived the idea to use celluloid strips as the base for chemical emulsions to record images. By May, 1887, he had refined the process of creating the strips enough to file for a patent.

At the same time, Henry M. Reichenbach, Reichenbach, Henry M. an employee of the well-known and well-funded Eastman Kodak Company, was working on a celluloid-based version of Kodak’s coated-paper film rolls; whether he knew of Goodwin’s work or conceived the idea independently is not known. In any case, the courts ruled in 1913 that he had infringed on Goodwin’s patent. By 1889, however, Eastman Kodak was manufacturing and marketing strips and rolls of film that could record several minutes of action at a time.

Thomas Alva Edison’s associate William Dickson Dickson, William used film manufactured by Eastman Kodak to produce the first fully functional motion-picture camera, the kinetograph, in 1891. However, Edison Edison, Thomas Alva [p]Edison, Thomas Alva;and motion pictures[Motion pictures] was not initially interested in the projection of film, so he created a peep-show device, the kinetoscope, Kinetoscope with which to view moving images derived from the kinetograph’s photographs. Because he did not see a large financial potential in motion pictures, Edison failed to file for European patents, thus opening the way for multiple Europeans to complete their own work on photographing and reproducing movement.

One of these Europeans was Louis Le Prince Le Prince, Louis , the son of a French army officer and student of chemistry. Having worked as a still photographer, Le Prince moved to Great Britain and became an employee of an engineering firm before moving to New York and managing a chain of theaters. Intrigued by the process of motion photography, he invented a very complex sixteen-lens camera, as well as a much simpler single-lens machine with a projector. As early as 1888, he used his invention and Eastman Kodak’s paper film to photograph family scenes at his home, which survive today in limited copies of the original paper prints.

There is evidence that Le Prince intended to rent premises and publicly show his films, but after boarding a train in Dijon, France, after a visit with his brother, he disappeared on the way to Paris. Despite an extensive search and tremendous publicity, no sign of him was found; He is now believed to have disembarked and drowned en route. Therefore, though he was the first person known to create actual motion pictures on continuous strips of film, Le Prince’s Le Prince, Louis influence on motion picture development was minimal.

Eastman Kodak’s Eastman Kodak Company;film film became commercially available in 1889, and it was used by the various pioneers of motion picture. Louis Lumière Lumière, August Lumière, Louis and his brother Auguste Lumière patented the cinematograph, Cinematograph a machine that could record images, develop them, and project the results. They showed their films in Paris to enthusiastic audiences in late 1895, though these entertainments consisted mostly of scenes of everyday life, such as a train arriving at a station and workers leaving a factory.

Georges Meliès, Georges Méliès, a stage magician, asked the Lumières for permission to use their device to create his own movies. When they refused, he invented a motion-picture camera of his own and began experimenting with filming techniques that would create magical effects similar to those of his stage show. Méliès is often called one of the inventors of special effects. His fantastic films often involved multiple, lavish sets and costumes, and they were much longer than the earliest Lumière and Edison films. Scottish filmmaker James Williamson Williamson, James also created some of the earliest multishot films, utilizing techniques such as shot/reverse-shot and other forms of editing in films including Attack on a China Mission (1900) and Fire! (1901).

Another early director, Edison employee Edwin S. Porter Porter, Edwin S. , also helped develop narrative films. Like Williamson, one of his most successful early multishot films was based on the established genre of firefighters riding to the rescue, which had already been the subject of magic lantern shows for decades. Indeed, Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (1903) was an adaptation of a magic lantern show. Later in the decade, the film reel became a standard length, and single-reel films were made by such early directors as D. W. Griffith (1875-1948) Griffith, D. W. at Biograph (the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company American Mutoscope and Biograph Company ). Griffith would be one of the directors to develop the first so-called feature-length films in 1914-1916.


Although Goodwin died in a car accident in 1900 before he could realize any substantial financial rewards from his invention, the development of flexible, translucent film in continuous strips and rolls was key to the invention and development of the cinema. Without the ability to record several minutes’ worth of action at a time, film could not have progressed past a novelty entertainment and into a narrative medium. Furthermore, celluloid helped enable films to be projected to a roomful of people at one time. This, along with the ability to strike many prints from a single negative, made the economics of film production and presentation worthwhile for artists and businessmen to pursue. Without Goodwin’s invention, a tremendously influential art form might never have lasted long enough to attract further innovation and interest from the public. Even though Goodwin is not as well known as many early film pioneers, his contribution was vitally necessary for film to exist today as a major cultural form.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cook, David A. “Origins.” A History of Narrative Film. 2d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. The first chapter of this standard history of film art is devoted to early technical and artistic developments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Allen, and Dumas Malone, eds. Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 4. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960. Includes a short but fairly thorough encapsulation of Goodwin’s life and career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, Ray. Edison’s Kinetoscope and Its Films: A History to 1896. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Thorough treatment of the peep-show films (all of which are listed, with many described) made by Edison’s film company.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rawlence, Christopher. The Missing Reel: The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures. New York: Atheneum, 1990. A dramatic and somewhat sensationalized narrative of Louis Le Prince’s life and mysterious disappearance.

Daguerre and Niépce Invent Daguerreotype Photography

Edison Patents the Cylinder Phonograph

Muybridge Photographs a Galloping Horse

Edison Demonstrates the Incandescent Lamp

First Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures

Kodak Introduces Brownie Cameras

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