Edison’s Kinetoscope

Source: ‘Edison’s Kinetoscope’, The Straits Times, 13 July 1896, p. 2

Text: EDISON’S KINETOSCOPE. A WONDERFUL MACHINE.

DR. HARLEY, the entertainer, ventriloquist, illusionist, and electrician, has brought the novelty of which the reading and scientific public have heard and read so much, viz., the novelty that Edison failed to finish in time for the Chicago Exhibition, and which he calls the Kinetoscope. It is in the shape of an upright hardwood pillar letter-box, being square instead of round, having a hooded slit in the top and a magnifier beneath, through which the beholder views the scene to be enacted. The bar saloon scene is one. In an American bar some men are seen seated at a table playing cards. A man enters and purchases a cigar. He then overlooks the players, and making a remark to one of them – which is resented – a row and fight immediately takes place. The Police are called in who clear the bar; and the landlady then draws a jug of beer, and gives it to the Policeman, who has evidently had a dry job.

It should be understood that this is not an imaginary scene from the brush of an artist, but is an accurate photograph of a scene that has taken place. The Gaiety Girls doing the carnival dance are perfectly lifelike, every movement every smile on the face; and the swish of the skirt are in full evidence. Within the cabinet is a small, but powerful, electric motor – which runs a number of wheels and reels that carry a Photographic Film of celluloid having 1,400 photographs more or less on it. These were taken at 46 per second, and are run past the eye at the same rate over an electric lamp, and by a rapidly revolving reel, which cuts off the light, at the right moment, the effect is produced. Dr. Harley will lecture and exhibit the machine at Messrs. Robinson’s music store from 10 till 5 to-day and Tuesday. Only a limited number will be able to view it as his accumulators are running low and he will not get them filled in Singapore.

Comment: This report comes from the Singapore newspaper The Straits Times. The Edison films described are New Bar Room Scene (1895) and Gaiety Girls aka The Carnival Dance (1894). It is is correct to assert that Edison did not exhibit the Kinetosope at the 1893 World’s Fair. Dr Harley exhibited films in several Asian locations at this time. Note the lack of an electricity supply in Singapore in 1896.

Seeing American Films

Source: ‘Seeing American Films’, Yo-shi Bao [The Amusement Paper], September 1897, quoted in Jay Leyda, Dianying / Electric Shadows: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China (London/Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1972), p. 2

Text: Last night, in the cool of the evening following a shower of rain, my friends took me to the Chi Gardens to see a show. After the audience gathered, the lights were put out and the performance began. On the screen before us we saw a picture – two occidental girls dancing, with puffed-up yellow hair, looking rather silly. Then another scene, two occidentals boxing. Then a woman bathing in a tub … In another scene a man puts out the light and goes to bed, but he is disturbed by a bedbug. To catch it he throws off all the bedding, and when he finally puts it in the chamber pot he looks very funny …

Comment: The first projected film show in China was on 11 August 1896. The American photographer James Ricalton brought Edison films to Shanghai from June 1897 and according to Jay Leyda this is a review of a Ricalton show, but the films described appear to be Georges Méliès productions (and hence French films): Après le bal le tub (1897), Une nuit terrible (1896), and possibly Match de boxe (1897). The dancers with yellow hair suggests that the films had hand-painted colour.

The Kinetoscope

Source: ‘The Kinetoscope’, The Morning Post, 18 October 1894, p. 5

Text: Mr. F.Z. Maguire, the representative of Mr. Edison in Europe, last evening received a large number of visitors at a private view of Mr. Edison’s latest invention, the kinetoscope, which was held at No. 70, Oxford-street. Mr. Edison has devoted four years to the experiments which have led to the completion of the kinetoscope, an instrument which by presenting a series of photographs in rapid succession gives a continuous picture of moving objects. Among the scenes represented in the apparatus last evening were a blacksmith’s shop in which three men are at work, with all their movements as they strike the anvil realistically displayed, while the smoke from the furnace gradually ascends; Carmencita, the celebrated Spanish dancer, executing her graceful evolutions; Bertholdi, a female contortionist, going through her performance; a bar-room fight, and a cock-fight. The photographs are exhibited at the rate of 2,000 a minute on a continuous celluloid film 45ft. long. The pictures, which are all perfect in themselves, are magnified in the machine and illuminated by the electric light. The present exhibition, however, does not represent the degree of perfection to which Mr. Edison promises to carry his invention, and it suffers by the smallness of the pictures and the want of clearly defined light and shade as well as by the inconvenience of looking down into the instrument. The inventor intends in future developments to throw moving pictures of life-size figures on a screen, and by the aid of a perfected phonograph which can reproduce every vibration of the violin to perpetuate the voices concurrently with the gestures of orators and actors, and even to show entire scenes from operas and plays, with all the speeches and songs as well as the movements of the performers. The instruments at present exhibited are offered to the public at the price of £70 apiece. They can, however, only be regarded as an amusing toy and as a preliminary to the greater achievements that are promised in the future. Probably an improvement may be effected by reducing the rapidity of the display, for it is recognised in the science of optics that the human eye is incapable of appreciating more than eight impressions in a second, while Professor Tyndall places the number at only seven.

Comment: The Kinetoscope peepshow was introduced to the UK on 17 October 1894 at a press showing organised by Maguire & Baucus, Edison’s European agents, at 70 Oxford Street, London. There were ten machines on display, showing the Edison films Blacksmiths, Cock Fight, Annabelle Serpentine Dance, The Bar Room, Carmencita, Wrestling Match, Bertoldi and Barber Shop.

The Journals of Sydney Race

Source: Ann Featherstone (ed.), The Journals of Sydney Race 1892-1900: A Provincial View of Popular Entertainment (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 2007), p. 50

Text: February 1895
During this month Edison’s last greatest invention – the Kinetoscope showing living figures – has been on exhibition in a shop on the Long Row. The figures were contained in a big box and one looked down through a glass and saw them within.

I saw at different times a dancer and a barbers [sic] shop the latter with several figures and everything was true to life. The figures appear a brilliant white in outline on a black background but in the barber shop it was possible to distinguish a negro from the white man. The figures have been photographed continuously and two or three thousand of them are whirled before your eyes by Electricity in less than a minute.

Comment: Sydney Race (1875-1960) was the working-class son of a cotton mill engineer and worked as an insurance clerk in Nottingham. His private journal documents the different kinds of entertainment he witnessed in Nottingham. The Edison film he describes, Barber Shop (1893) (or its 1895 remake New Barber Shop), does not feature a black character.

Links:
Entry on Sydney Race at Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema

Journal of Queen Victoria

Source: Journal of Queen Victoria, 23 November 1896

Text: After tea went to the Red drawing-room, where so-called “animated pictures” were shown off, including the groups taken in September [sic] at Balmoral. It is a very wonderful process, representing people, their movements and actions as if they were alive.

Comment: Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was filmed at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, by the photographic firm W. & D. Downey on 3 October 1896, in the company of her guests Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. This account from her journal records the screening of the film by Downey, among a selection of other films, at Windsor Castle the following month. The film was billed by Downey as Her Majesty the Queen and TIMs the Emperor and Empress of Russia, TRHs the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, HRH Princess of Battenberg and Royal Children at Balmoral.

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows

Source: ‘I.M. Pacatus’ (Maxim Gorky), Nizhegorodski listok, 4 July 1896, translated (by Leda Swan) and reproduced in Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960), pp. 407-409.

Text: Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.

If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Every thing there — the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air — is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its soundless spectre.

Here I shall try to explain myself, lest I be suspected of madness or indulgence in symbolism. I was at Aumont’s and saw Lumière’s cinematograph—moving photography. The extraordinary impression it creates is so unique and complex that I doubt my ability to describe it with all its nuances. However, I shall try to convey its fundamentals. When the lights go out in the room in which Lumière’s invention is shown, there suddenly appears on the screen a large grey picture, “A Street in Paris” — shadows of a bad engraving. As you gaze at it, you see carriages, buildings and people in various poses, all frozen into immobility.

All this is in grey, and the sky above is also grey — you anticipate nothing new in this all too familiar scene, for you have seen pictures of Paris streets more than once. But suddenly a strange flicker passes through the screen and the picture stirs to life. Carriages coming from somewhere in the perspective of the picture are moving straight at you, into the darkness in which you sit; somewhere from afar people appear and loom larger as they come closer to you; in the foreground children are playing with a dog, bicyclists tear along, and pedestrians cross the street picking their way among the carriages. All this moves, teems with life and, upon approaching the edge of the screen, vanishes somewhere beyond it.

And all this in strange silence where no rumble of the wheels is heard, no sound of footsteps or of speech. Nothing. Not a single note of the intricate symphony that always accompanies the movements of people. Noiselessly, the ashen-grey foliage of the trees sways in the wind, and the grey silhouettes of the people, as though condemned to eternal silence and cruelly punished by being deprived of all the colours of life, glide noiselessly along the grey ground.

Their smiles are lifeless, even though their movements are full of living energy and are so swift as to be almost imperceptible. Their laughter is soundless although you see the muscles contracting in their grey faces. Before you a life is surging, a life deprived of words and shorn of the living spectrum of colours — the grey, the soundless, the bleak and dismal life.

It is terrifying to see, but it is the movement of shadows, only of shadows … Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on the screen. It speeds straight at you — watch out!

It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music and vice.

But this, too, is but a train of shadows.

Noiselessly, the locomotive disappears beyond the edge of the screen. The train comes to a stop, and grey figures silently emerge from the cars, soundlessly greet their friends, laugh, walk, run, bustle, and … are gone. And here is another picture. Three men seated at the table, playing cards. Their faces are tense, their hands move swiftly, The cupidity of the players is betrayed by the trembling fingers and by the twitching of their facial muscles, They play … Suddenly, they break into laughter, and the waiter who has stopped at their table with beer, laughs too. They laugh until their sides split but not a sound is heard. It seems as if these people have died and their shadows have been condemned to play cards in silence unto eternity. Another picture. A gardener watering flowers. The light grey stream of water, issuing from a hose, breaks into a fine spray …

This mute, grey life finally begins to disturb and depress you. It seems as though it carries a warning, fraught with a vague but sinister meaning that makes your heart grow faint. You are forgetting where you are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your consciousness begins to wane and grow dim …

Besides those pictures I have already mentioned, is featured “The Family Breakfast,” an idyll of three. A young couple with its chubby first-born is seated at the breakfast table. The two are so much in love, and are so charming, gay and happy, and the baby is so amusing …

I am convinced that these pictures will soon be replaced by others of a genre more suited to the general tone of the “Concert Parisien.” For example, they will show a picture titled: “As She Undresses,” or “Madam at Her Bath,” or “A Woman in Stockings.” They could also depict a sordid squabble between a husband and wife and serve it to the public under the heading of “The Blessings of Family Life.”

Yes, no doubt, this is how it will be done. The bucolic and the idyll could not possibly find their place in Russia’s markets thirsting for the piquant and the extravagant. I also could suggest a few themes for development by means of a cinematograph and for the amusement of the market place. For instance: to impale a fashionable parasite upon a picket fence, as is the way of the Turks, photograph him, then show it.

It is not exactly piquant but quite edifying.

Comment: This famous first impression of witnessing motion pictures was written by the Russian writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) after attending a Lumière film show organised by Charles Aumont at the Nizhny-Novgorod All-Russian Exhibition on 30 June or 1 July 1896. Aumont’s Théâtre Concerto Parisienne also served as a brothel.

Diaries of Alexander Goodall

goodall

Source: Diaries of Alexander Goodall, State Library of Victoria, Australia

Text: 1 July 1895, Monday
Geelong. At Exhibition Theatre today. Edison’s marvellous invention. Five scenes on view. “The Indian War dance”, “The Boxing Cats”, “The Skirt dancer”, “Buffalo Bill”, and “Sandow the Strong Man”.

Comment: Alexander Goodall (1874-1901) was a Post and Telegraph Office clerk living in Victoria who died young of tuberculosis. His vividly-illustrated diaries, covering 1892-1897, have been made available online in facsimile form by the State Library of Victoria. This extract records his seeing the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow at Geelong. Other extracts record Goodall’s impressions of the Edison Kinetophone (combing the Kinetoscope and the Phonograph) in July 1896 and the Cinematograph in May 1897. The films referred to are Sioux Ghost Dance (or possibly Buffalo Dance) (1894), The Boxing Cats (1894), Buffalo Bill (1894), Annabelle (1894) and Sandow (1894).

Links:
Diaries of a Working Man

Flashback

Source: George Pearson, Flashback: The Autobiography of a British Film-maker (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957), p. 14.

Text: With six pence to spend I had gone to a funny little shop in the Lambeth Walk where Pollock’s gory melodramas for his Toy Theatres were sold, sheets of characters for a penny plain, twopence coloured. Fourpence went rapturously on ‘Alone in the pirates’ lair’. With twopence jingling a farewell in my pocket, since the toffee-shop was near, I zig-zagged through the hurly-burly of the busy street, when presto! … the great adventure began. It was outside a derelict greengrocer’s shop. The hawk-eyed gentleman on a fruit-crate was bewildering a sceptical crowd. In that shuttered shop there was a miracle to be seen for a penny, but only twenty-four could enter at a time, there wasn’t room for more. His peroration was magnificent … ‘You’ve seen pictures of people in books, all frozen stiff … you’ve never seen pictures with people coming alive, moving about like you and me. Well, go inside and see for yourself, living pictures for a penny, and then tell me if I’m a liar!’

One of my pennies went suddenly; I joined twenty-three other sceptics inside. Stale cabbage leaves and a smell of dry mud gave atmosphere to a scene from Hogarth. A furtive youth did things to a tin oven on iron legs, and a white sheet swung from the ceiling. We grouped round that oven and wondered. Suddenly things happened, someone turned down a gas-jet, the tin apparatus burst into a fearful clatter, and an oblong picture slapped on to the sheet and began a violent dance. After a while I discerned it was a picture of a house, but a house on fire. Flames and smoke belched from the windows, and miracle of miracles, a fire-engine dashed in, someone mounted a fire escape, little human figures darted about below, and then … Bang! … the show was over. Exactly one minute … I had been to the cinema!

Comment: George Pearson (1875-1973) was a British film director. This eye-witness testimony, taken from his autobiography, is highly evocative, but also quite suspect, as Pearson was born in 1875 and would not have seen any sort of film show before he was twenty-one at the earliest. After an early career as a teacher, Pearson became a film director in 1914 and went on to direct A Study in Scarlet (1914), Ultus – The Man from the Dead (1918), Squibs (1921), Reveille (1924), The Little People (1926), Open All Night (1934) and many more. Flashback is an evocative account of British film production, filled with Pearson’s deep belief in the power of the medium.