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Discover the history and development of film, a merging of science, technology, business, and art, and one of the most widely experienced mediums.

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Advent of Cinema

Advent of Cinema

Scientists and inventors set photographs into motion—and make movies.

Experimentation with Sound

Sound technology breaks the silence of the movies and revolutionizes filmmaking.

Documentary and Propaganda

Filmmakers turn their cameras onto real life to make documentaries, or attempt to mold real life to an ideology through propaganda.

Experimentation in Film / The Avant-Garde

Seeing untapped artistic and, sometimes, revolutionary potential in film, artists and filmmakers take motion pictures into entirely new territory.

In 1839, members of the French Académie des Sciences listened in awe to the announcement that a process of fixing still images onto a light sensitive surface had been developed: photography had arrived. Soon scientists and inventors began tinkering with this new technology, seeking to put these still images into motion. Among the early experimenters was French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey. Together with his assistant, Georges Demeny, Marey captured the successive phases of a person in motion on a single photographic plate, as in Untitled (Sprinter) (after 1893).

Such work demonstrated the potential for motion contained within photographic technology. Roughly 50 years after their advent, photographs would become the building blocks for the earliest moving pictures when they were sequenced on strips of paper, and later on celluloid, and set spinning in or rolling through various early inventions, like the Praxinoscope and the Zoetrope.

With their introduction of the world’s first motion picture camera, the Kinetograph, in 1890, American inventor Thomas Alva Edison and his assistant and protégé, William K. L. Dickson, ushered the earliest movies into existence. The Kinetograph was made possible, in part, by the recent introduction of strips of celluloid film. These were loaded into the device, recorded, and then viewed in another of Edison’s and Dickson’s inventions, a cabinet-like apparatus called the Kinetoscope. Merging technology with biology, the Kinetoscope (as well as the earlier, pre-cinematic devices) capitalized on a phenomenon called persistence of vision, which was well understood by the late 19th century: when we view still images in rapid succession, our brain perceives them as being in continuous motion. Dropping a nickel into the Kinetoscope’s slot would activate the machine, and as the celluloid rolled through it at varying frames per second, one person at a time could peer through a peephole on its top and watch as short moving sequences passed before their eyes.

Dickson took stock of the nascent film industry in his book, History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope and Kineto-Phonograph, published in 1895. He argued: “In the promotion of business interests, in the advancement of science, in the relation of unguessed worlds, in its educational and re-creative powers, and in its ability to immortalize our fleeting but beloved associations, the kinetograph stands foremost among the creations of modern inventive genius.”1 In other words, Dickson envisioned this early motion picture camera and the films it produced as touching all aspects of modern life—an assertion that would be proven true.

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

Pre- and early cinematic inventions:









William K. L. Dickson, quoted in William K. L. Dickson and Antonia Dickson, History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope and Kineto-Phonograph (A. Bunn, 1895).

A popular 19th-century optical toy, invented by a Parisian science teacher named Charles-Émile Reynaud, comprised of a cylinder fitted with a strip of paper printed with 12 sequential image frames. When the cylinder spins, a mirror fixed in its center reflects the images and makes them appear animated.

The world’s first motion-picture camera, developed in 1890 by American inventor Thomas Alva Edison and his assistant and protégé, William K. L. Dickson. It was electrically powered and worked with celluloid film, which was advanced through the camera via a system of sprockets.

The first synthetic plastic material, developed in the 1860s and 1870s from a combination of camphor and nitrocellulose. Tough, flexible, and moldable, it was used to make many mass-produced items, including photographic film for both still and motion picture cameras. Despite its flammability and tendency to discolor and crack with age, celluloid was used in motion picture production until the 1930s, when it began to be replaced by cellulose-acetate safety film.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A pre-cinematic device consisting of a cylindrical drum with evenly spaced vertical slits cut into its sides. Its interior held a paper strip printed with sequential drawn or photographic images, which would appear animated when the drum was spun.

A cabinet-like apparatus, forerunner of the motion-picture film projector, developed in 1891 by American inventor Thomas Alva Edison and his assistant and protégé, William K. L. Dickson. When a nickel was dropped into its slot, celluloid film (recorded in the Kinetograph) would roll through the Kinetoscope, passing between a lens and an electric light bulb (another of Edison’s inventions). A peephole at the top of the Kinetoscope allowed people to view moving pictures as the celluloid rolled past.