The Edison Film

William Kennedy Dickson

William Kennedy Dickson


Born of a French mother and Scottish father, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson moved to the USA in 1879 where, four years later, he obtained a job with Thomas Alva Edison.


In his first years with Edison, Dickson worked on research projects in electrical engineering and iron-ore milling. He was also a skilled and keen photographer.


In June 1889, Edison first asked Dickson to work on the project that Edison had been developing since the sequence photographer Eadweard Muybridge had suggested the idea of moving pictures to him in February 1888.


Dickson struggled for some time to coat drums with a photographic emulsion of sufficient sensitivity to produce twenty-five microscopic images a second. It was not until he obtained sheets of celluloid photographic film that he achieved some success.


William Kennedy Dickson and

Kinetograph Camera


Working with William Heise, Dickson devised a camera (the Kinetograph) and viewing device (the Kinetoscope) that used ¾inch (19cm) wide film with a single row of sprockets.


He changed to a film 35mm wide that was less prone to physical damage. In the final version of the Kinetograph, the film was transported vertically through the camera, producing individual frames 1 x ¾ inch (2.5 x 1.9cm).


There were four rectangular perforations on each side of the frame. This format became universally adopted by the film industry and, with slight modifications, is still used today.


Dickson designed the first-ever film studio at West Orange: a glass-roofed shack built on a turntable so that it could be turned to follow the sun. Known as the 'Black Maria' because of its resemblance to a police wagon, it was ready in May 1893.


With the impending commercial release of the Kinetoscopes, Dickson concentrated on making films.


The first ten Kinetoscopes were installed at the Holland brothers' Kinetoscope Parlour in Broadway, New York, which opened on 14 April 1894.


Holland Brothers' Kinetoscope Parlour


Over the next year, business boomed, though that was not to last, as people tired of the novelty of the peep-show viewer. Dickson himself was secretly involved with one of the Kinetoscope agents, Otway and Gray Latham, who were working on the invention of a projector.


At the same time, Dickson was also in partnership with three other entrepreneurs in a venture that became the American Mutoscope Company. Dickson provided the basic idea for the flip-card viewer that Casler developed into the Mutoscope (better-known as the 'What the Butler Saw' machine).




Dickson left Edison In April 1895 and in December the Mutoscope Company was formed with Dickson as one of its four partners and in charge of film production.


In 1897, Dickson returned to Britain with a Biograph camera where he filmed the royal family and Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee procession. He travelled throughout Europe filming Kaiser Wilhelm, Emperor Franz Joseph and the Pope.


Dickson’s film career came to an end in 1903 when he left British Biograph. From 1906 onwards he was established in London as an electrical engineer. He died in 1935.


Thomas Alva Edison

Thomas Alva Edison


Born in 1847 in Ohio, Edison is now believed to have had a form of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) and was largely schooled by his mother.


Beginning his career working for a Telegraph company, Edison's undoubted talent as an engineer and inventor led him to take out a number of lucrative patents. He was able to set up his own facilities at Menlo Park (south-west of New York City) in 1876, where many of his famous inventions, including various movie cameras and projectors, were devised.


During the 1890s and 1900s, the money made by Edison's phonograph and movie businesses supported an expensive and ultimately unsuccessful quest to improve the mining of iron ore.


Edison had pulled out of the fast-moving and already overcrowded market for movies and the equipment needed to make and exhibit them by 1918.


By now, Edison had graduated from inventor and industrialist to cultural icon, a symbol of America's ingenuity and resourcefulness. The US Congress awarded him a Special Medal of Honour in 1928 as the nation celebrated the Golden Jubilee of electric light.


Edison continued to work until shortly before his death in 1931.

The Dancers


Loïe Fuller



Born in 1862 in a suburb of Chicago, Loïe Fuller progressed from an early career as a child actor to a burlesque dancer and choreographer. She combined her choreography with silk costumes illuminated by multi-coloured lighting of her own design.


Indeed, Fuller held several patents relating to coloured gels used to create changeable lighting colours and chemical salts with which she dyed her costumes. These, in combination with the dance movements, created the illusion that her costume changed colour during her routine.


Feeling that her endeavours as a dancer / choreographer were not taken seriously in the USA, Fuller moved to Paris, where her art was fully appreciated, and where she performed regularly at the Folies Bergère.


The painstaking attention to detail taken when colouring Clip 1 seems very likely to be an attempt to replicate the impact of her act.

Annabelle Whitford


Early cinema’s most prolific star, Annabelle Moore (later Annabelle Whitford, and finally Annabelle Whitford Moore Buchan) made several films for Edison and Biograph between 1894 and 1897. A follower of Loïe Fuller, Annabelle performed several dances at the Black Maria studio and was fea­tured in the Kinetoscope’s first London showing in October 1894.


When the Biograph was launched in 1896 two of its earliest productions were Annabelle’s Butterfly Dance and a Flag Dance in which she performed draped in the American colours. The sale of her films was further boosted in December 1896 when it was revealed that she had been approached to appear naked at a private dinner party at Sherry’s Restaurant, New York.


Annabelle remained the centre of public attention throughout the 1890s and 1900s, starring as the Gibson Bathing Girl in the first of Ziegfeld’s Follies in 1907. She continued to appear in the Follies until 1912 when she married and retired from the stage.