In the late 1880s, Edison turned his attention to recording moving images and in 1888 described a device which would "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear".
He appointed one of his chief electrical engineers (and accomplished photographer), William Kennedy Laurie Dickson as head of the project. At their research facility in Menlo Park NJ, the Edison Company spent two years experimenting with film, lenses and the mechanics of film transport before developing a device which successfully recorded and replayed movement. Named the Kinetoscope, it was a peep show viewer which allowed a single viewer to see a 30 - 60 second loop of film.
On the 20th of May 1891, Edison unveiled the Kinetoscope to a large group attending a convention of the Federation of Womens Clubs. The subject of the film was Dickson himself bowing, smiling and taking off his hat.
However, Edison and Dickson needed more entertaining films for their machines before they could exploit them commercially.
In 1893, they built America's first movie studio, a large tar covered shack nicknamed The Black Maria, (after its resemblance to the police Paddy Wagons of the time). Ingeniously constructed on a revolving rail and with an opening skylight to maximise on the use of natural light, its stage was to feature excerpts from many of the vaudeville acts which were popular in New York music halls at the time.
The 'Black Maria'
Most of the films during this era were definitely made by men, for men, with boxing and scantily clad burlesque dancers being the most popular.
Many well known dancers were enticed to perform in the Black Maria between 1894 and 1897, among them Loie Fuller, Chrissie Sheridan, Carmencita, Ella Lola and Annabel Whitford. Some of the dance films were painstakingly enhanced by hand-colouring, a task carried out by wives of Edison employees (notably the wife of Edmund Khun).
Commercially, Edison did the same with the Kinetoscope as he did with the Phonograph, by leasing it to special licensed parlours, the first of which opened in New York on April 14th, 1894.
For a short while the Kinetoscope was commercially successful but with the loss of staff (Dickson left in April 1895) and, in particular, developments in Europe, Edison's lead in the motion picture entertainment industry was threatened. The French Lumiere Brothers, Edison's main rival, had the first public screening of a film in a cafe in Paris in December, 1895.