Sunlight, Kinetograph, Action!

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2017

This month in history, Thomas Edison opened the world’s first film studio. Simon Frost writes, Ashley Cooper illustrates.

Long before green-screened soundstages, soft boxes, digital cameras and limitless post-production tools made it possible to portray just about any vision imaginable on screen, Thomas Edison created a building that looked something like a rotating shed – but the Black Maria was no mere carousel.     

Completed in February 1893, and named for its resemblance to a police patrol wagon, the Black Maria in West Orange, New Jersey, USA, was the world’s first film studio. In the absence of powerful studio lights, its roof could be opened to allow sunlight to flow in, while the building’s rotating base aligned it with the sun throughout the day.  

Edison’s ambition was to do ‘for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion.’ To achieve this, he partnered with Scottish inventor William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson to develop the Kinetograph, a motor-powered camera on which a strip of sprocketed celluloid film was driven by an escapement disc mechanism, allowing each frame to be exposed before advancing to the next, at a maximum rate of 46 frames per second. 

Short, silent films captured on the Kinetograph at the Black Maria included Annabelle Serpentine Dance, a 45-second skirt dance performance by Annabelle Moore, Blacksmith Scene, in which three blacksmiths strike a metal rod on an anvil then take a swig of beer, Fred Ott’s Sneeze and Fred Ott Holding a Bird, which starred Edison’s employee Fred Ott sneezing and holding a bird, respectively. As word of the device spread, vaudevillian stars, magicians and entertainers flocked to be filmed in the Black Maria – an arrangement of mutual gain for both the performers and Edison, who took advantage of the free publicity by posing with the stars for news articles. 

Rather than being projected onto a screen, the films were viewed using the Kinetoscope, which historians tend to agree was largely developed by Dickson, rather than Edison himself. One viewer at a time would look down through a magnifying glass in a peephole at the top of a wooden cabinet housing a series of film spools. Metres of celluloid film were lit by an electric lamp and driven along the spools by an electric motor to create the moving image.

 In 1894, a public Kinetoscope parlour was opened in New York City – the first commercial motion picture house. The venue used 10 machines, each showing a different film to a solitary viewer – a viewing experience not entirely dissimilar to the increasingly popular virtual reality headsets today. Coin-operated Kinetoscopes – known as nickel odeons – soon began to appear in amusement arcades. 

The Black Maria was demolished in 1903, following Edison’s purchase of a glass-ceilinged rooftop studio in New York City in 1901, but a replica of the Black Maria, built in 1954, now stands at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, USA.