Inventing Motion Pictures

When you think of movies, you think of Hollywood. But before Hollywood, New Jersey was the movie capital of the world.

New Jersey became the movie industry's home because motion pictures were invented here. William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, a worker at Thomas Edison's West Orange laboratory, invented the first movie viewer and movie camera. The camera was called a kinetograph, and the peephole viewer was called a kinetoscope. The names come from the Greek word kineto, which means movement.

Work on the camera and viewer began in 1888. By October 1892, Dickson and Edison had finished versions of the products. They used flexible 35-mm film from the Eastman Company (now Kodak) to take the pictures.

The first movie devices looked like kitchen cabinets. The kinetoscope was originally four-feet tall. A peephole on top let the person see the image. Inside, 50 feet of film moved through a number of spools. A lamp beneath the film allowed the pictures to be seen. As the pictures rapidly moved over the lamp, the still pictures appeared to be moving. For more details on the Edison laboratory's work on inventing the movie camera and viewer, check out the Library of Congress' Web site on Edison Motion Pictures.



Black Maria

Now that they had a way to make and show movies, Edison and his assistants needed to produce things to show. In December 1892, the Kinetographic Theater, better known as the Black Maria, was opened in West Orange. Black Maria was a name used for police wagons at that time, and the Kinetographic Theater was a similar tar color.

Only sunlight was strong enough to allow images to be seen on movie film at that time, so the roof of the studio opened to let in sunlight. The entire Black Maria could be rotated to keep it aligned with the sun.

Inside the theater, there was a stage, which was barely 12 square feet. The kinetograph in the studio was very heavy and large, so it always stayed in one spot, pointed in one direction. For closer shots, people moved toward the camera.

In 1893, Edison conducted the first public demonstration of the kinetoscope at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. To Edison's surprise, the public responded in a big way. The first Kinetoscope parlor opened in New York, followed by similar openings all over the country.

The next year, more than 75 films were made in the Black Maria. Each lasted about 20 seconds. All films were silent and in black and white. Dickson and another Edison assistant William Heise were the first cinematographers.

Many different people and actions were filmed at the Black Maria. Segments of vaudeville acts, plays, magic tricks, and dancing were all captured. Many of the famous people of the day including Buffalo Bill, gunslinger Annie Oakley, and strongman Eugene Sandow performed for the camera. Many of Edison's films are still available, and you can view them online.

After a few years, Kinetoscopes began falling out of favor as other inventors had developed movie projectors. Viewers could now see films on a screen instead of by looking in a peephole. Also, smaller, portable cameras were now used. With these two advances, longer films shot in different scenes could be created. The Black Maria was too small to make such films, and it was closed in 1901.


"The Great Train Robbery"

The closing of the Black Maria did not spell the end for the movie industry in New Jersey. Thanks to its varied landscapes, New Jersey provided a great setting for many kinds of movies.

The most popular among New Jersey films was "The Great Train Robbery." (Watch the movie online.) Edison's cameraman Edwin S. Porter directed and filmed the landmark western. Porter, considered the "father of American story film," shot the ten-minute, 14-scene movie in various New Jersey locations including Paterson. It was the most popular and commercially successful film of its time.

The film was quite different from other movies. Edison had been filming everyday events such as snowstorms. Porter convinced Edison people would flock to the theaters to see a story on film. Porter was the first director to use close-ups and edit film to create suspense.

Porter and a group of local actors headed for the wilds of New Jersey to shoot the film. The plot was inspired by a true event that occurred on August 29, 1900, when four members of Butch Cassidy's "Hole in the Wall" gang halted a train on the Union Pacific Railroad tracks in Wyoming. The bandits blew up the safe in the mail car to escape with about $5,000 in cash before a posse arrested them.

The ending of the film was most exciting to viewers. A gun was pointed straight at the audience and fired right in their faces to startle them. The scene never failed to send viewers in the front row diving for cover.

With the popularity of narrative films soaring, movie stars were born. Fort Lee became the home to many of the first movie stars. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Pearl White, and Harold Lloyd all performed and lived in Fort Lee.

However, World War I spelled the end of the movie industry in New Jersey. Soon almost all movies were made in Hollywood. In recent years though, the film industry has come back to New Jersey, as it is no longer as necessary to shoot all movies in a central location.