In the spring of 1891, the Edison company conducted its final batch of experimentation with the Kinetoscope. The device would make its debut that May, and movie-making would finally wander out of the experimentation era and into the public consciousness.
The Monkeyshines series had presented a few early successes at capturing motion, but the picture quality of these presentations were hardly suitable. The original projection concept included a cylinder-like system where film strips were rotated horizontally. After visiting a film exposition in Europe, Edison conveniently filed another patent for a new process that used filmstrips rather than cylindrical sheets. The film was run through a series of sprockets (gears) that presented a smoother picture quality.
Progress on the Kinetoscope halted for the remainder of 1890 to make way for other innovative endeavours. After these undertakings fell through, the team pursued motion pictures again with a newfound vigour. Chief lab technician William K.L. Dickson made a crucial breakthrough in early 1891 with the creation of a new projection process. Relying on the insights of the European inventors, Dickson and his team perfected a series of loops and spindles that pulled a series of 19 mm filmstrip under a magnifying glass. The film was simultaneously lit underneath by a lamp, and the illuminated images were projected onto a glass peephole for viewing. This updated Kinetoscope was presented to a Women’s club in May 1891, where the unsuspecting filmgoers were treated to what was perhaps the first public screening.
The team assembled three experimental films for their updated model. These films: Dickson Greeting, Men Boxing and Newark Athlete, presented a new maturity in Dickson’s filmmaking ethos. The picture quality was a significant improvement over Monkeyshines, and the team seemed more imaginative in their depictions. In Dickson Greeting, the aforementioned technician beckons the audience, dramatically welcoming the viewer to a new era in communication. Men Boxing is another tongue-in-cheek production in the vein of Monkeyshines, but it is Newark Athlete that takes movie-making seriously. In this short film, a man stands stoically before the camera, twirling Indian clubs as part of an athletic routine. This was a popular sport at the turn of the century, a type of workout fad practiced across the world. Here we can see the team experimenting not only with technology, but also the possibilities of this format. Goofy presentations in front of the camera are a good start, but what do people really want to see? After all, this was a powerful new tool, and the team had to decide what future productions would entail. Would filmmakers strive for simple entertainment, or would presentations of reality be the goal. As we’ll come to find out, this debate dominated the first few decades of film production, and allowed for exciting innovations that are still felt today.