Silents are Golden: Eidoloscopes, Praxinoscopes, And Other (Very) Early Cinematic Inventions
The invention of cinema was very much a fast-paced race. Starting in the late 19th century, dozens of inventors worked on machines to create moving images, everything from optical illusion toys to cameras to projectors. Some of these machines, like Edison’s Kinetoscope, were essentially wood-and-brass versions of familiar modern-day projectors. But many other of these Victorian machines were, shall we say, different.
Whirling discs, moving slides, multiple lenses – there seemed to be no end of ways to create and project moving images, some inventions being more cumbersome than others. In the 1870s Eadweard Muybridge got the ball rolling with his series of sequential photographs showing the movements of a running horse. This led to an interest in other optical illusion novelties and by the 1890s there were dozens of patents for photographic equipment, everyone hoping to create the next big thing. The bulk of these unusual-looking inventions cropped up in the 1890s, but some were around even earlier. Here are a few of these eccentric machines (note: all images are from victorian-cinema.net, a fabulous and extremely detailed resource for information on very early cinema).
The aforementioned Muybridge created this special 1880 projector for public demonstrations of his sequential photographs. It had the same basic idea as the phenakistoscope and zoetrope, the early 19th c. whirling discs that created animations: silhouetted images were painted on a glass disc, and the spinning disc projected moving images on a screen. Muybridge’s photos demonstrating motion were massively influential and some consider him the true father of cinema.
The son of a watchmaker, Émile Reynaud grew up well acquainted with unusual, fascinating inventions. Studies in engineering and photography led to an interest in magic lantern slides and projectors. He decided to try his hand at designing an optical illusion toy and the result was the praxinoscope, featuring images on the inside of a circular band that reflected in mirrors covering a central drum. Spinning the band caused an animated image to appear in the mirrors. The success of his praxinoscope led Reynaud to create the…
This was a large-scale praxinoscope that included a projector and two spools that fed long strips of images around the circular band, so the animation wasn’t limited to what Reynaud could fit in a single circle. Each spool was cranked by hand simultaneously to make the animations. The images were printed on gelatin and fastened together with fabric or leather, and it’s thought that Reynaud was the first to come up with sprocket holes to help move the images along. Reynaud started demonstrating his invention in 1892, giving close to 13,000 shows in less than ten years.
This tall machine from 1886 was created by photographer Ottomar Anschütz, who would become the photographic advisor to the family of Kaiser Wilhelm II. It featured a large wheel of glass images, turned with a hand crank. The animation was viewed on a milk glass screen in a darkened room, just big enough to hold a handful of people. Anschütz’s invention was a popular one and smaller peephole versions started showing up in fashionable cities like Paris and Berlin, just before the similar (and slowly developed) Kinetoscope.
Created by Anschütz in 1890, this was a longer version of a tachyscope he had created in 1887 (distinct from the electric version in the last entry). It featured 4-6 bands of images around an enclosed cylinder. A tiny spark illuminated each image, and the resulting moving pictures could be viewed through several small windows.
After inventing several unwieldy combination cameras and projectors, in 1897 French inventor Raoul Grimoin-Sanson decided to top himself and create a panoramic experience. He fashioned ten cameras and projectors in a circle so the footage would create a single panoramic image and made several films, including an ambitious aerial view taken from the basket of a balloon. While his invention was supposed to be exhibited at the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris, heat from all those projector lamps kept it from working properly, and Grimoin-Sanson has fallen into obscurity ever since (despite his attempts to claim that his cinéorama worked just fine).
In the mid-1890s brothers Grey and Otway Latham, along with their father Woodville and mechanic Eugene Lauste, patented what is probably the first cinematic machine that created a widescreen image (originally known as the Panoptikon). The brothers had been in the business of exhibiting films of prize fights and became determined to find a way of getting life-size images. They made films on the top of Madison Square Garden in New York City and used film that was two inches wide. While people were impressed by the magnified images, the Lathams soon became embroiled in legal and technical issues and eventually lost their patent. Their lasting legacy, however, is the “Latham loop” – a slack loop of film that reduced tension on the film and allowed for the projection of much longer moving pictures. Lauste is given credit for much of its development, as is Edison employee William K.-L. Dickson, who was a secret advisor.
Surprisingly, not all motion picture equipment inventors made the switch to spools of film when it became available – some still tinkered with other methods of making movies. In 1898 Englishman Leonard Ulrich Kamm created a thin, 12-inch wide glass disc with the images printed in a continuous spiral. Images could be recorded by simply rotating the disc by hand in front of the lens. Advertised as a “filmless cinematograph,” guaranteed not to be flammable like film, it was on the market for a few years but didn’t last – recordings were less than a minute long and there was no way to edit them.
Many of these early cinematic inventions exist in museums and private collections today, relics of a period of intense creativity and competition. While some once-popular inventions have become obscure and others only existed for a short time, they all helped create the movies as we know them today.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.