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By Colin Harding on

Celluloid and Photography, part 3: The beginnings of cinema

In the third and final post of the series, Colin Harding looks at the role played by celluloid in the invention and development of moving pictures.

The background

The invention of cinematography was the result of the convergence of several areas of technical development. However, while the underlying principles of moving pictures were understood by the 1880s, the invention of a practicable system of cinematography remained dependent on a fundamental change in photographic materials technology—the replacement of glass plates by celluloid roll film.

The introduction of roll film, first paper and then celluloid, provided early motion picture experimenters with the material they had been waiting for and made possible the commercial development of cinema.

Put at its most basic, cinematography involves the intermittent exposure and projection of photographs made in a rapid sequence. Glass, with its weight and fragility, presented early motion picture experimenters with huge problems. Yet, until the mid-1880s, they had no alternative.

The introduction of dry plates in the late 1870s, with their far greater sensitivity than wet collodion emulsions, meant that instantaneous exposures of a fraction of a second were now possible. Movement could be frozen and the analysis of motion by sequential photography was undertaken by pioneers such as Eadweard Muybridge in America and Etienne-Jules Marey in France.

While their principal aim was to analyse movement from a sequence of photographs rather than attempt to synthesise it, their work was to impact directly on the invention of cinematography. Both Muybridge and Marey used glass plates to capture their images. Muybridge employed up to 24 cameras placed side by side. Marey, in contrast, adopted a single-camera technique, with multiple images recorded on a revolving glass plate.

In order to create the illusion of movement, individual photographs could be mounted on a strip and viewed in devices such as the zoetrope. An alternative method was to print the negatives as a series of positive transparencies. These could be mounted on the edge of a revolving disc or wheel and projected using a magic lantern fitted with some form of intermittent mechanism to create a moving picture. This was the basis of Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope projector of 1879. Whatever methods were employed, however, the use of glass plates placed a severe practical limitation on the number of sequential images that could be obtained or viewed.

The introduction of George Eastman’s roll film system of photography in 1885 was to break the technological block that was holding back the emergence of a practical system for recording and displaying moving pictures. Within 2–3 years, several experimenters had abandoned glass plates and discs and begun to explore the possibilities offered by the new flexible paper roll film.

Experiments with paper film

One of the first to experiment with paper roll film was Louis Le Prince, a Frenchman who had moved to Leeds in 1860. In November 1886 Le Prince applied for an American patent (finally granted in January 1888) for a multiple-lens camera, fitted with electromagnetic shutters, which exposed sequences of pictures on paper negative film. In his description of the camera, Le Prince noted:

The sensitive film for the negatives may be an endless sheet of insoluble gelatine coated with bromide emulsion or any convenient ready-made, quick acting paper such as Eastman’s paper film.

In his British patent application of 10 January 1888, Le Prince also described a single-lens version of his camera. Short lengths of film shot with this camera in Leeds in 1888 still survive. Le Prince disappeared mysteriously while on a visit to France in 1890.

On 15 October 1888, Marey announced to the French Academie des Sciences that he proposed to make a series of images on a long band of sensitised paper. Two weeks later, on 29 October 1888, he showed the members of the Academy his first results.

Still using his plate camera, he had replaced the glass plate with paper roll film. This film was passed from one spool to another using an electromagnetically operated intermittent mechanism. Pictures could be taken at a rate of about twenty per second at an exposure time of 1/500 of a second. The Photographic News gave details of Marey’s work for British readers:

M. Marey has lately designed a fresh apparatus of extraordinary delicacy for the study of successive movements of a body in motion. The images are obtained on sensitive paper which is unrolled as required… (i)

Meanwhile, probably inspired by reports of Marey and Le Prince’s work, William Friese Greene, together with Mortimer Evans, took out a British patent for an ‘improved apparatus for taking photographs in rapid series’ on 21 June 1889 (patent number 10131,1889). The patent described a camera for exposing a ‘roll of any convenient length of sensitised paper or the like.’

On 28 February 1890, the Photographic News published full details and drawings of the camera. Three days earlier, Friese Greene had exhibited his camera at the Annual Meeting of Bath Photographic Society where he had said:

When I first saw a roll of paper go through at the rate of ten a second, and stop an instant when each exposure was made, I felt like a child over new toys… (ii)

Another pair of British pioneers, Wordsworth Donisthorpe and W.C. Crofts, also took out a patent for a sequence camera in 1889. Their patent of 15 August described a camera that used ‘a sensitive film carried by a roll of paper or other material’. From the few frames taken with this camera that have survived, it is clear that it used the paper film that was introduced the previous year for use in the first Kodak camera.

Despite the advantages which paper film offered over glass plates, it was not the complete answer. Paper was comparatively weak and its opacity made printing difficult and projection impossible. An alternative to paper was anxiously sought.

In June, 1889, the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Co. announced that they had:

… perfected a process for making transparent flexible films for use in roll holders and Kodak cameras. The new film is as thin, light as paper, and as transparent as glass. (iii)

It was the introduction of this celluloid-based roll film that was to prove one of the key factors in the development of cinematography.

Experiments with celluloid film

The first supplies of Eastman’s new transparent celluloid roll film went on sale in America in the Autumn of 1889. It was not until the start of 1890, however, that it became available in Europe.

One of the first to take advantage of the new material was Marey, who used it in his cameras. The greater toughness of celluloid enabled him to take pictures at a frequency of up to one hundred pictures a second.

In Britain, William Friese Greene had attended a meeting of Bath Photographic Society on 27 November 1889, where H. M. Smith, a lecturer and demonstrator for the Eastman Company, had shown some samples of the new celluloid film that was shortly to be put on the market. By the end of January 1890, the new film was on sale in Britain, and Friese Greene soon began to make use of it. In April that year, he demonstrated his camera at a meeting of the Photographic Society:

Mr Friese Greene showed a camera for photographing phases of motion. A long roll of sensitive film on celluloid was unwound and rewound by the turning of a handle and kept stationary for a minute interval of time, during which the exposure was made. (iv)

It was in America rather than Europe, however, that the first commercial exploitation of cinematography was to take place, when moving pictures caught the interest of the great inventor and industrialist Thomas Alva Edison.

Edison and the Kinetoscope

The stimulus for Edison’s work on cinematography was probably a lecture given by Eadweard Muybridge in February 1888 at Orange, New Jersey, near to Edison’s laboratory. Two days after the lecture, Muybridge paid a visit to Edison and the two men discussed the possibility of combining Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope with Edison’s Phonograph.

Edison gave the task of developing this project to one of his laboratory assistants: William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, a Scottish-born photographer who had been working with Edison since 1883. It is to Dickson that most of the credit for the work on moving pictures must go.

Dickson’s initial work was based on extending the principle of the phonograph to encompass vision as well as sound. He envisaged a rotating cylinder on which tiny pictures could be produced in a spiral arrangement. These could then be viewed through a magnifying lens to produce moving pictures. Problems soon arose, however, in attempting to produce photographically sensitive surfaces on cylinders.

In June 1889, Dickson obtained some samples of Carbutt’s recently-introduced celluloid sheet film, which was flexible enough to wrap around a cylinder. The experiments continued but were soon to take a radically new direction following a trip to Europe which Edison made in August 1889.

On a visit to the Universal Exposition, held in Paris, Edison met with Marey, who showed him his roll film sequence camera. In his book Two Reels and a Crank, Albert E. Smith gives an account of Edison’s version of that meeting:

Some time later Edison was to tell me of a visit in Paris with E. J. Marey, the distinguished French physiologist. He had gone there to attend the Paris Exposition and introduce his incandescent lamp. For some time Edison had been experimenting with the possibility of photographing moving pictures on a cylinder similar to that used in his phonograph. Departing for Paris, he instructed his assistants to keep hard at the experiment. In Paris, Marey took him into his shop and there revealed his motion-picture camera, utilising pictures in sequence, one under the other as they are today. “I knew instantly that Marey had he right idea,” Edison told me. On the return trip aboard ship, he said, he pencilled out a mechanical draft of a machine, and immediately upon his arrival at Orange he ordered a halt on all work on the cylinder idea, and the new project was launched. (v)

At first, Dickson used short strips of the relatively thick Carbutt celluloid film. However, Eastman’s new transparent film had just come on the market and samples were soon acquired to assess its suitability.

On 2 September 1889, Dickson wrote to Eastman acknowledging receipt of a roll of the new film:

I shall try some today & report—it looks splendid—I never succeeded in getting this substance in such straight & long pieces. (vi)

Little further work seems to have been done until 1891 when, in August, Edison filed a patent application for a Kinetoscope viewer using perforated bands of celluloid film. By this time a problem had been discovered with Eastman’s film—it was not strong enough.

On 23 July 1891, Eastman sent a sample of film which had been returned to him by Edison to his chemist, Henry Reichenbach:

The trouble with the film we have sent him is that the cogs tear the film slightly, as you will see by the enclosed, and gives blurred images. (vii)

To counter this problem, Eastman set Reichenbach on the task of making film of double thickness. Progress was not swift enough for Edison and Dickson, however, who decided to abandon using Eastman film in favour of heavier, thicker film supplied to them by the Blair Company of Boston. It was to be 1896 before Eastman was to recapture this sector of the market.

When the Kinetoscope was commercially introduced in 1894, it was to embody a direct link with Eastman. It was designed to take film exactly half the width of that made for the original Kodak camera of 1888, probably produced by slicing such film down the middle and splicing it together to give a length of about fifty feet. This film was 35mm wide—the origin of the film we use to this day.

Edison’s contribution—together, of course, with that of Dickson—to the development of moving pictures was significant since he was the first to employ perforated celluloid film. The Kinetoscope, however, was a peepshow device. It was left to others to take moving pictures to the final stage: projection.

On 28 December, 1895, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière gave the first public presentation of projected moving pictures. The first performance in Britain using their cinematographe camera/projector took place on 20 February 1896. The success of these shows secured the commercial future of moving pictures and ensured a secure and growing market for celluloid film for cinematography.

In Britain, the work of the Lumières had been paralleled by that of two men who were to be responsible for establishing the British film industry—Robert Paul, an instrument maker, and the photographer Birt Acres.

The European Blair Camera Company Ltd

One of the first suppliers in Britain of celluloid roll film for use in cinematography was the European Blair Camera Company Ltd (viii).

Thomas Henry Blair was a major figure in the American photographic industry and a principal competitor to George Eastman. The Blair Company was involved in the manufacture of a range of cameras and photographic materials and had, since late 1891, been producing celluloid roll film for the American market.

In 1893 Blair came to Britain and, in imitation of George Eastman’s earlier, successful, move, set about forming a British branch of the company, which he named the European Blair Camera Company Ltd. At first, the company dealt only in imported, American-made cameras and film, but plans were soon drawn up to start film production in this country.

In May 1894, The Photogram reported that: ‘A complete film-coating plant has been brought over…’ and a British factory was set up in St Mary Cray, Kent (ix).

When film pioneers such as Birt Acres and Robert Paul began their work, the Blair Company was one of the first that they turned to for a supply of suitable film stock. In October 1897, Birt Acres was to recall:

The European Blair Co of London supplied me with the films that I used in England; in fact, as the Blair Co. can testify, the very first strip of film they ever cut for this purpose was cut to my order. (x)

Forty years later, Robert Paul was also to remember using Blair film:

Film stock, with a matt celluloid base, was procurable from Blair, of St Mary Cray, Kent. (xi)

The Eastman Photo Materials Company Ltd

At first, the celluloid films supplied by the Eastman Photo Materials Co. Ltd for cinematography were those intended for the growing range of Kodak cameras. With the growth of moving pictures, however, the company entered into the production of film made specifically for cine use.

The celluloid base for cine film needed to be thicker than that for cartridge film in order to make it strong enough to withstand the strain of being pulled through a camera or projector mechanism. Two different emulsions were required for positive and negative film. Negative film for cameras had to be very fast, but the positive film onto which the negative was printed for projection could be much slower.

The exact date at which Kodak began to commercially supply cinematograph film is a matter of debate. In 1932, F. W. T. Krohn, the first chemist employed at Kodak’s Harrow factory, recalled:

Some time in 1894, it must have been towards the end of the year, we began to try and coat film 4/1000 inch thick for the cinematograph industry which was just then beginning to be a commercial proposition. (xii)

Production problems were to delay the introduction of the new film. Robert Paul used Kodak film in 1895 for his work with the kinetoscope. It is unclear, however, whether this was specifically intended for cinematographic work or conventional cartridge film for still photography.

In a letter to The Amateur Photographer, published in October 1897, Birt Acres claims that he had approached the Eastman Photo Materials Co. Ltd suggesting that they should produce cine film, but was informed that it would not be worth their while to manufacture it (xiii).

This does not tally with a statement in the Photographic News in June the previous year:

We are informed that the Eastman Company are experiencing a strong demand for the lengths of celluloid ribbons coated with gelatine emulsion, that are used for making kinematographic negatives and positives. (xiv)

Production was certainly in full swing by September of 1897 when The Optician and Photographic Trades Review could report:

In this connection, it is impossible to omit a reference to the large branch of the Company’s business in animated photography: The public are not aware that the pleasure and excitement they have gained from the wonderful moving pictures could never have been enjoyed but for the perfection of rollable film photography. In this work the Eastman Company have been pioneers, and they are amongst the largest, if not the largest of the manufacturers of films for use in the different instruments which are known by such various names as the Animatograph, Cinematograph, and Biograph… (xv)

The market in 1897

By the beginning of 1897, several firms were advertising celluloid film for cinematography for sale in Britain: The European Blair Camera Co. Ltd (xvi), Dr J. H. Smith and Co. of Zurich (xvii), The Celluloid Co. of New York (xviii), Fitch & Co. (xix) and The Northern Photographic Works at Barnet (xx). Film was available in a range of lengths and widths, plain or ready-perforated.

In its review of ‘recent novelties in apparatus etc’, The British Journal Photographic Almanac for 1897 included a notice on Fitch’s celluloid film:

Messrs Fitch & Co, … the well-known pioneers of celluloid films in this country, are determined to be well to the fore in respect to their speciality, and are placing on the market a film possessing all the usual good qualities, and calculated to produce the most perfect results for cinematograph work. (xxi)

Birt Acres had set up in business as the Northern Photographic Company in January 1896. As Photography magazine had noted in April 1897:

In the earlier days of the work, Mr Acres bought his films already coated, but a number of defects induced him to do this work himself. (xxii)

The same article goes on to describe the coating process:

It passed through the coating machine with a regular and steady motion, and passed along rollers until it was diverted upon an immense drum, where in the space of a few hours it was dried and ready for working. One of the most important features of Mr Acres’ system is that he can coat films of unlimited length, and is at present turning out films six hundred feet long.

At first, Acres’ film was intended solely for his own use. He quickly decided, however, to place it on the market. In June 1897, The Photogram reported:

Mr Acres is no longer content to pose as a mere kinetographer and showman, but is devoting his attention to the manufacture of sensitive films and to their development, printing, etc, for customers who may not wish to undertake more than their exposing. He purchases the celluloid substratum in long rolls of considerable width, and by means of machinery, which it is not necessary to describe in detail, he cuts and perforates it to the well-known standard gauge. (xxiii)

Throughout this early period, the method of production for celluloid film remained the glass table process as described in part two of this series. This was costly and produced comparatively short lengths of film. It was the rapid growth in the amateur market for cartridge film, however, rather than the needs of the infant moving picture industry that was the key factor in the introduction of more efficient and cost-effective film casting techniques.

In 1893 a British patent was granted to William H. Walker for a continuous production method for celluloid films which utilised a slowly revolving wheel as an alternative to glass tables (British patent number 4214, 1893). It was not until 1900, however, that the Eastman Company succeeded in the commercial production of film using wheel casting machines (xxiv).

When the glass tables became obsolete, Kodak film production was discontinued at the Harrow factory. From 1900 onward, all film was imported from Rochester. In Britain, Eastman gave the responsibility for capturing the growing film market to Ernest E Blake. A former exhibitor of films, Blake made the most of his contacts in the business:

I went off and saw some of my old pals… Bob Paul, Cecil Hepworth, Geo Cricks, Chas Urban, and offered them film—negative and positive—unperforated at 2d a foot. Nothing doing, they could buy from Lumière for less than that. [It was] agreed we could meet the latter’s price. (xxv)

Blake was to remain responsible for all Kodak cine film sales in Britain and Europe for over twenty years.

With the successful introduction of continuous film production, Eastman Kodak gained an advantage over its potential competitors. Although other firms were to enter the market, by 1910 Eastman Kodak were to control more than ninety per cent of the world market for cine film. As George Eastman explained:

It is not that anybody cannot make the same kind of film, but it is making film exactly the same every day, and the man that can do it must get the trade, because there is so much dependent upon it. (xxvi)

Part 1: Celluloid as a substitute for glass

Part 2: The development of celluloid roll film


i The Photographic News, 23 November, 1888, p. 744.
ii The Photographic News, 28 February, 1890, pp. 157-9.
iii See The British Journal of Photography, 7 March, 1890, pp. 152 and 157.
iv See The British Journal of Photography, 18 April, 1890, p. 254.
v Albert E. Smith (1952), Two Reels and a Crank, Doubleday & Co, New York, p. 80.
vi See Carl Ackerman (1930), George Eastman, Constable, p. 65.
vii Ibid, p. 67.
viii The Photogram, May, 1894, p. 113.
ix Ibid.
x The Amateur Photographer, 1 October, 1897, p. 277.
xi Proceedings of the British Kinematograph Society No. 38, 3 February, 1936, p. 3.
xii F. W. T. Krohn, Early Kodak Days (I891-I901) Unpublished, 1932, p. 23.
xiii The Amateur Photographer, 1 October, 1897, p. 277.
xiv The Photographic News, 26 June, 1896, p. 401.
xv The Optician and Photographic Trades Review, 23 September, 1897, p. 102.
xvi The British Journal Photographic Almanac, 1897, p. 1188.
xvii The Photographic Dealer, March, 1897, p. ix.
xviii The British Journal Photographic Almanac, 1897, p. 288.
xix The British Journal Photographic Almanac, 1897, p. 1033.
xx The British Journal Photographic Almanac, 1897, p. 610.
xxi The British Journal Photographic Almanac, 1897, p. 889.
xxii Photography, 1 April, 1897, p. 205.
xxiii The Photogram, June, 1897, p. 178.
xxiv See E. G. Couzens, A Short History of the Film casting Process and its Products, p. 19.
xxv E. E. Blake, Reminiscences, Unpublished, 1959, p. 22.
xxvi See Reese V. Jenkins (1987), Images and Enterprise, Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 278.

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