The Founding Fathers of Film

The Founding Fathers of Film

Gambling, backstabbing, accidental brilliance, industrial sabotage, and suspicious disappearances all had a role in the birth of film. This is a look at the Victorian-era men who played vital roles in making movies possible. 

The transition of film from still photography to the burgeoning industry that it is today did not happen overnight. Moving pictures began as a novelty act. In the mid 19th century, photographers would place successive metal film prints into spinning disks to create pictures that “moved”. Later, it was a wager by railroad tycoon Leland Stanford that gave moving pictures their first practical application. In 1878, he wanted to see if a horse ever had all of its legs off the ground when it ran, and a set-up of cameras in quick succession by Eadweard Muybridge gave him the answer of “yes”. Muybridge would develop this idea further, into a spinning lantern called the Zoopraxiscope to study the movement of animals. This is widely considered the first movie projector.

The Zoopraxiscope would have huge implications. By itself it was a single use novelty, but it inspired other inventors to make actual moving pictures. During the last two decades of the 19th century, film technology rapidly advanced thanks to the work of a select few individuals. These individuals are the founding fathers of film. It is their inventions and improvements to existing technologies which allowed the motion picture industry to bloom at the start of the 20th century. This is a look at those men and their accomplishments. The names below are by no means conclusive of all of the people who had an influence during the early years of film, but they are the ones that had the biggest impact.

George Eastman


Eastman may be best known as the founder of what would later become the Eastman Kodak Company, but his 1884 invention of celluloid film is what made that company successful and earned his place on this list. Prior to Eastman’s invention, photographs had to be chemically etched into metal plates. This was cumbersome and made photography equipment expensive and heavy. Furthermore, it was just not practical for motion pictures since many single exposures would be required.

Eastman took celluloid, which was the first thermoplastic ever developed, and spread it thin into a paper-like material to create film. By 1889, he came up with a thinner version that was flexible, which allowed it to be cast into a roll. This improvement allowed multiple exposures to be taken without having to remove the film from the camera between shots. That is what ultimately made motion pictures technically possible.

Charles-Émile Reynaud 


Reynaud was a science teacher with a background in a wide variety of subjects who created the first projected animated films. As a child he had been taught how to paint with watercolors, and then he went on to become an apprentice at a steam engine shop before moving on to work for a company that made optical equipment. Building on these experiences, he would later work as a photographer in Paris before becoming an assistant to Abbé Moigno, a famous catholic priest who was also a physicist. Moigno would give lectures using a magic lantern.

These experiences all had a significant influence on Reynaud. In the 1870’s he began to give his own weekly lectures in various topics open to the public. He also used a magic lantern, hand-painting his own slides. His natural curiosity and experience in optics led him to want to improve the magic lantern further. He developed a device where he could paint individual slides and insert them into a perforated cardboard track that would be advanced in front of the magic lantern, which was used to project animated films.

In 1888 he patented his finished creation, the Theatre Optique and provided the first ever commercial demonstration of a motion picture. The Theatre Optique was different from previous crude methods of creating animated films with spinning disks because it could display different films of varying lengths. He also improved it with a method to add sound effects, which were mechanically triggered by tabs on the film band. Reynaud would go on to create 100’s of films for his device, and would become famous for his motion picture shows, although the advancing technology of film capture would soon surpass his animation methods.

Louis Le Prince 

Le prince

Le Prince is considered the “Father of Cinematography” because he was the first person to shoot a motion picture using a single lense camera. In 1886-7 he completed his camera design and patented it. His first successful capture on Eastman’s celluloid film was in 1888. The early years of film were hotly contested because many different inventors in the US, France, and England patented similar devices around the same time. They foresaw the importance of this device, and many of them fought to be correctly credited as the inventor of the technology and thus wanted to be granted the sole right to market it.

This competition caught up with Le Prince. He was set to exhibit his technology in the US in 1890, but mysteriously disappeared while in transit under suspicious circumstances. Due to his disappearance, he was not correctly given the credit for reaching this important milestone (years before his chief competitors), until the mid 20th century.  

Thomas Edison 


Although Thomas Edison is recognized as one of the most inventive men in history, his involvement with film was more from a business perspective than an inventor. In fact, many of the inventions that bear Edison’s name were in fact created by someone else either under his employment, or through purchase of patents. The motion picture system is one such example, although Edison can be credited with being one of the first people to recognize its potential and begin research towards its creation.

In 1888, Edison had seen one of the lectures of Muybridge where the zoopraxiscope was demonstrated. The lecture was also attended by Edison’s photographer, William Dickson (see below). The encounter inspired Edison to create a system that would show moving images to go along with his phonograph. He instructed Dickson to work on the idea. In 1889, Edison came up with the idea (after visiting an exposition) of using sprockets to advance the film smoothly on the perforations. Dickson incorporated this idea into his creation, the Kinetoscope. It was a box with a continuous strip of film spooled on a series of sprockets that was advanced by a crank or electric motor. The operator would watch the film through a viewing lense. Edison commercialized the invention by installing several Kinetoscopes each with a different film in an arcade, and charging people for admission (this would become the Nickelodeon).

Although the Kinetoscope was a marvel for its time, and Edison had a knack for marketing, it was soon surpassed by others. The invention of film projection became a serious source of competition to Edison’s Kinetoscope because it allowed for the viewing of more technically advanced films by larger audiences. Edison could not develop his own technology, so he purchased Robert Paul’s system and marketed it as his own (the “Vitascope”). Edison established America’s first film studio in 1893 with the founding of Black Maria. It was called Black Maria after the nickname of the police wagons of the era because the structure was draped in black and was a small single room structure. It was built on a rotating track so that Edison could take advantage of natural sunlight throughout the day.   

William Dickson 


While Edison was responsible for the initial idea of creating a motion picture device, and funded its creation, it was actually William Dickson who did most of the work. Dickson was a photographer, and his first breakthrough for film was to invent the 35mm size. At the time, celluloid film was created in 70mm widths. For the development of the Kinetoscope, Dickson needed to fit as much film into the device as possible, and one way to do this was to reduce the size of the film. So he cut the 70mm film in half and perforated the resulting sections.

In 1891 Dickson’s lab had created the first prototype of the Kinetoscope. Dickson also helped to invent the Kinetograph, which was a portable motor-driven camera that used Dickson’s perforated 35mm film. In 1891, the lab used the Kinetograph to make a film with a brief greeting. The film featured Dickson, who was the first known person to appear in a film. 

Charles Francis Jenkins 

charles francis jankins

Jenkins was an American inventor who started working on his own motion picture camera in 1891. In 1894 he demonstrated his invention to his family and friends for the first time. They gathered at his cousin’s jewelry store for what would be the first ever projection of a motion picture in front of an audience, and the first ever motion picture in color. Jenkins had painted every frame by hand.

He would work with his business partner to improve the design, but had a falling out. His partner sold the rights to Thomas Edison around 1895. Edison, whose Kinetoscope was losing popularity because it could only be viewed by one person at a time, needed a device to project film. He renamed Jenkins’ invention as his own, the “Vitascope” and began to produce films for it. Jenkins would go on to become an influential figure in the technological development of film. He started the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, and later became one of the inventors of Television in the 1920’s.

Auguste and Louis Lumiere


The brothers Lumiere were two of the earliest filmmakers and credited with creating the first movie projection system. They worked for many years in their father’s factory manufacturing photographic plates. The factory was not profitable, and so the brothers took it upon themselves to make some changes. In the 1880’s they invented machinery to automate many of the processes. From this improvement, they came up with the idea for perforations in the celluloid film to advance it. This would later become very useful for motion picture capture and especially projection, which had yet to be accomplished.

They would not implement their advancement of film perforations into motion pictures until 1892, when they were inspired by Edison’s kinetograph technology, which had put to use the perforated film improvement. However, the brothers Lumierer wanted to project film so that more than one person could view it at a time, something which Edison could not do. In 1895, they succeeded, and patented their version of a motion picture camera and projector system, which they called the cinematograph. On December 28th, 1895 at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, they screened ten of their short films, which was the first ever commercial screening of film in front of an audience. The technology of the cinematograph became very popular because not only was it the first method by which to suitably project film on a screen, but because it was also relatively inexpensive and reliable.

Robert W. Paul

robert paul

Robert Paul is one of the most important figures for spreading the appeal of film in its early days. Paul was an instrument maker, owning his own company in London. With his expertise in electronics, he was asked to help make a duplicate of Edison’s kinetoscope. He first refused, but later found out that Edison had not patented his invention in England. This inspired him to purchase a kinetoscope for himself and figure out how it worked.

By 1895 he was creating duplicates which he sold for profit, and then created his own version, which would be the first film camera invented in England. The success of the kinetoscope, and his own efforts at making a motion picture camera of his own inspired him further to try and figure out how to broaden its appeal. In 1896, he revealed his invention for a projector (which happened to be the very same day that the Lumiere brothers put on their famous first showing).

In England, he toured with his projector system, which sparked a revolution. Theater owners around the country wanted their own projector, and Paul was happy to supply them. He found immense success, and continued trying to improve his equipment. In 1896 he created the first reverse-cranking camera. This allowed for the creation of multiple exposures, which was an important innovation in the development of special effects, which only broadened the potential and appeal of film even further.

Georges Melies


Melies was one of the most important early filmmakers. A theater owner, he saw the appeal of film upon viewing a Lumiere demonstration. The Lumiere’s did not want to sell their creation, and so he eventually was able to purchase equipment from Robert W. Paul. He modified Paul’s camera system to meet his needs, and eventually became one of the first people to become famous for making films more than making film equipment.

In 1896, he basically invented special effects by accident. His camera jammed during a take, and some of the film skipped and overlapped. When he tried to reset everything, he saw the skewed footage and it looked like one of his characters transformed. This was inspiration to use film to create optical illusions that could be used for storytelling and inspirational purposes. He went on to create many short films that would test out various special effects techniques. This created an important diversion in the future of film. Whereas the Lumieres saw the invention of the motion picture as a scientific endeavor, Melies approached it as art. His theater background allowed him to make more and more sophisticated films with the goal of entertaining audiences. By 1897 he had created films in all the major genres, and by the turn of the century his films were widely regarded for their sophistication and incredible inventiveness. His most lasting accomplishment was his 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon.

The Pathe Brothers

pathe bw

The Pathe Brothers have earned their place in film history because of the film production company that bears their name. Charles Pathe began a gramophone shop in 1894, and soon expanded his enterprise to include film equipment. He got into the film business at exactly the right time because it soon blossomed in popularity. The company went public in 1897 to help support additional film-related endeavors. In 1902, the brothers purchased the rights to the Lumiere’s designs and began building their own improved version.

What made the Pathe brothers’ camera different than their competition is that they had the means to produce and market it internationally. Through distribution networks and merchandising, their cameras dominated the industry until nearly the 1920’s. By 1910, it was estimated that more than 50% of all films made in the world were made on Pathe camera systems. Their business had also expanded to include more than 200 movie theaters as well as one of the very first film production companies. This allowed them to commercialize every step of the movie making process.