In the beginning: cinema’s murky origin story

Everyone knows that the Lumière brothers invented cinema, right? Well, up to a point: the story is more complicated than that…

Birt Acres filming the Derby at Epsom on 29 May 1895

The familiar story is that cinema was born when the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière staged their first ticketed film show in Paris on 28 December 1895. But while that is the version of the facts embedded in movie history, it is not true.

A woman looking into a kinetoscope

The movie business did not begin with films projected on a screen but viewed in a box: the Edison ‘Kinetoscope’. For their money, the customer of 1894 would bend over, peer through a hole and view a tiny but vivid staged sequence lasting around 17 seconds. This was the culmination of a six-year project at the Edison works, overseen by William Dickson.

Thomas Edison and the Lumières believed that moving pictures would prove a short-lived novelty, but that there were market opportunities while it lasted. Edison’s initial efforts focused on recording micro-photographs on a cylinder – a similar idea to his wax-cylinder Phonograph; but the technology failed utterly. However, at the Paris Exposition of 1889 he met the scientist Etienne-Jules Marey, who was devoted to the analysis of movement and had recently designed a camera to capture sequences on a short film strip. On his return to America, Edison switched to film.

Also taking in the Exposition was the British inventor and photographer William Friese-Greene. Back in London, mechanics were busy building the motion-picture film camera he had designed with the help of a civil engineer. The camera and films taken with it were displayed widely and reported internationally. At this stage, though, Friese-Greene could not crack the problem of film projection: a stumbling-block for all the early experimenters, including Edison.

The arrival of the Kinetoscope changed the game. Of the thousands who paid to see its minuscule mini-movies, getting a crick in their neck, at least some must have mused that it would be far preferable to watch them on a screen, like a magic lantern show. A few had the means to have a crack at it; among them was Antoine Lumière.

Antoine had been running a failing photographic business in Lyon, until his teenage son Louis came up with a formula for a new type of photographic plate; this proved so popular that it enabled his father to embark on a villa-building spree. When Antoine put his eye to the Kinetoscope, he saw francs spinning past. Using his contacts to get hold of a strip of the film, he headed back to Lyon and told his sons that they had to start making films asap.

Louis later recounted that while sick in bed, unable to sleep, he had a brainwave: to adapt the movement of a sewing machine to transport film. But perhaps fever had confused him, for Marey’s former assistant, Georges Demenÿ, who had patented a movingpicture camera in late 1893, had contacted the Lumières, proposing a collaboration, and Louis had already seen Demenÿ’s drawings of an intermittent mechanism remarkably similar to the one he allegedly dreamed.

In early 1895, as the Lumière project advanced, a young electrical engineer in Britain, Robert Paul, who had been manufacturing pirated Kinetoscopes and now needed product to put in them, teamed up with a renowned photographic expert, Birt Acres, to develop a camera. With the work of Friese-Greene as the wind at their back, they achieved this remarkably quickly. In the same March that the Lumières filmed workers leaving their factory, Acres successfully captured the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.

A frame from Friese-Greene test film, shot in 1891 on Kings Road, London

Paul and Acres’s films and projectors would be the first to be seen in Britain, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, South Africa and Australia. In Germany, the Skladanowsky brothers were already projecting their 12-second films at the Berlin Wintergarten in November 1895. But their upcoming booking in Paris abruptly fell through once news of the Lumière Cinématographe splashed across the press.

The Cinématographe was a combined camera and projector; employing talented engineers, the Lumières created a machine that was compact and reliable. I have had the pleasure of operating one: its mechanism ran as smooth as silk. However, it was limited to a slow running speed of around 15 frames per second (fps) and a maximum capacity of 17 metres of film, giving a duration of just 50 seconds. Whereas Acres and Paul had been confined to the Kinetoscope’s peepshow format, and so built a camera for 35mm film with a 1.33:1 image, the Lumières had the immense advantage of starting from a clean slate, with all screen ratios and film gauges open to them: imaginatively, they chose a 1.33:1 picture on 35mm film.

But over in New York, the Lambda Company had a bigger vision. Frustrated by the boxiness of the Kinetoscope image and the brevity of its films, their approach was radically different. Their system could handle almost any length of film. Not only that, but they shot at speeds upwards of 25 fps and used 51mm stock to create a wide 1.85:1 format – very similar to modern standards for film and television.

Ad for the Eidoloscope’s first show, in May 1895

That’s how, on 20 May 1895 – seven months before the launch of the Cinématographe in Paris – the first ever paying public saw projected motion pictures, at 156 Broadway, where the Lambda Eidoloscope showed a continuous 12-minute boxing bout. The following months brought street scenes, dances, horse races, seascapes and films from Mexico. During 1895, the Eidoloscope was seen in Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Detroit, attracting local headlines such as “KNOCKS EDISON OUT”.

But the Lambda team could not muster the contacts, financial muscle, solid organisation or marketing savvy of the Edison and Lumière companies and failed to consolidate their lead. When, in early 1896, Edison acquired the Phantoscope projector invented by Thomas Armat and Charles Francis Jenkins and launched it as the Edison Vitascope – followed a few months later by the arrival Stateside of the Lumière Cinématographe – Lambda was sidelined. But the Eidoloscope offers a tantalising glimpse of an alternative reality in which early cinema did not consist of one-minute movies, and silent films were widescreen, with modern running speeds.

So, if the Lumières didn’t mount the first film shows, or bring about any important technological advance, what did they do for us? Well, they produced 1400 50-second films of a high photographic standard which were widely distributed. And despite originally looking more contrasty, dim, jittery and flickery than the spotless 4K restorations you may have seen, Lumière films were a quality brand. Above all, they bequeathed us the word ‘cinema’. Or did they?

It is true that, despite complaints in the press that the name Cinematograph was ‘clumsy’ and ‘weird’, it became a standard term for film projection around the world; eventually it was truncated to ‘cinema’. However, two years before the first Lumière shows, a French inventor named Léon Bouly took out the first known patent for a moving-picture camera that could also be a projector, on which Auguste Lumière drew for inspiration. But Bouly didn’t keep up his payments, meaning the patent lapsed just as the Lumières began their work. And what had Bouly named his invention? Why, ‘Le Cinématographe’.