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The Complete History of the Discovery of Cinematography - Part 3 - A Brief History of Pre Cinema

The Phantasmagorie

In English this theatrical phenomenon was known as the Phantasmagoria. There were as many professionals at it as there were itinerant travelling showmen with their lanterns. One of the original and most elaborate of them all was E'tienne Gaspard Robert. He later changed his name to Robertson. His demonstrations of the lantern were slick theatrical productions designed and performed to scare people to death. Aparitions, ghosts and the like would appear from nowhere and literally frighten patrons from their seats. This macabre entertainment created quite a stir in the closing years of the 18th century.

The Phantasmagoria shows were often held in old run-down monasteries and chapels to add to the effect. The dark and sombre surroundings were ideal for special effects much like those created through Dolby surround sound and darkened theatres of today. Showmen used waxed sheets to catch images from "moving" lanterns on wheels and smoky rooms allowed images to float and "hang" in the air.

Robertson's varied performances would often use multiple lanterns. Fades, pans, dolly shots and rear projection were some of the tools of the artists which today are taken for granted as modern Hollywood creations. In America, Joseph Boggs Beale was considered the foremost magic lantern artist.

Elaborate nineteenth century magic-lantern shows with a variety of themes were produced at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London. The Polytechnic was built specifically for magic lantern shows and was part of a museum. As Terry Borten of the American Magic Lantern Theatre states;

"From 1838 to 1876, the Polytechnic produced extraordinary shows that dazzled two generations. The shows used giant lanterns with slides that were sometimes two feet long. Over 900 "Polytechnic" slides were exquisitely painted by the specialist firm of Childe and Hill, and Childe's dissolving views and elaborate special effects were an important part of the shows' popularity. The program was changed regularly during the year and included battlefront reports of the current wars, and fairy tales such as Aladdin's Lamp. The highlight of the year was The Christmas Special, featuring (of course) Dickens' classics like "Gabriel Grubb."

Persistence Of Vision

Man's ancient desire to make likenesses of himself and his environment found new satisfaction when he became able to reproduce movement through the fluid medium of film. As we can trace the history of photography back over centuries until the first photograph was taken in 1826 by Joseph Niepce, so can we look back to the ancestors of cinematography.

The first modern steps toward motion pictures were those taken in the direction of the study of persistence of vision. The investigation of this subject appears to have been conducted on a serious note by Peter Mark Roget in 1824. Roget presented a scientific paper detailing his studies and called it `Persistence of Vision with Regard to Moving Objects'. He provided an early definition of the phenomenon of the backwards wheel in forward motion, touching upon persistence of vision. The phenomenon itself was not only known in the 19th century. When one digs deep into the history of this subject we find that Aristotle himself spoke of after-images.

Our retina at the back of the eye retains an image for approximately 1/14 of a second longer than the eye actually sees it. This explains why you don't see blackness when we blink. When we see a film, TV or even someone walking down the street, what we see are actually individual moments in time. In the case of a movie, we are seeing still frames at 24 frames each second. The pictures "blend" one into another, or appear to "move" because 24 units in a second is more, or faster than 14 units in a second. The eye can't keep up and we therefore see things as "fluid" or moving.

In 1832 Joseph A.F. Plateau and Simon Ritter von Stampfer in Vienna, Austria, independently of one another, discovered an identical method for creating the illusion. They used flat disks which were perforated with a number of evenly spaced slots. Around the rim of the disk were an equal number of hand-drawn figures. Each figure showed successive phases of movement. Holding the device with the figures facing a mirror, the viewer spun the disk and looked through the slots. The figures reflected in the mirror appeared to move. Plateau's device, the phenakistoscope, and Stampfer's, the stroboscope, led to the invention of more elaborate devices using the same principle, such as the zoetrope. Such optical "toys" became popular in 19th-century homes.


One of the most important constituents in the discovery of motion pictures was the photograph. Like almost all other discoveries throughout time, photography was the result of accumulated technical knowledge covering a period of no less than three hundred years. In fact, just like the pinhole image effect preceded the camera obscura's construction, so did the knowledge of light-sensitive substances precede the actual harnessing of the fixed image through the photograph. The effect of light on silver compounds had been known for almost one hundred years itself, dating back to 1727 when it was discovered that silver halides turned black when exposed to the sun. But the photograph by itself would have to wait patiently until the coming of celluloid before re-created motion could be achieved.

This text will examine that entire history, from the pin hole image to the screen. Our purpose is to provide the most thorough, exhaustive and sweeping view of every component which makes up the medium of film and to give life and sustenance to it in the process. Chronologically presented, THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE DISCOVERY OF CINEMATOGRAPHY encompasses an historical and factual re-creation of it's own, combining all of the properties of cinematography and the persons responsible for their discovery or invention, and linking those pieces together into an ever unfolding story. The actual vision that many of these personalities had during their involvement in this fascinating process of creativity, production and improvement is astounding.

Earliest Extant Photograph "View from the Window at Gras". Joseph Nicephore Niépce is credited with producing the world's first permanently captured "image", which he called a Heliograph (or Sun Drawing). Niépce's photograph was made in 1826 and was taken from a window looking out across the roof tops of the Niépce home. He used a pewter plate that was sensitized with bitumen of Judea. The photograph was made in a camera obscura and took an eight hour exposure. The extant photograph is 8" x 6.5" and resides at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin. It was discovered by chance, in the 1950's in London when found along with letters written by Niepce. The photograph is part of the Gernsheim Collection and is known as “View From The Window At Gras”. In 1813, Niépce obtained an image but it was not fixed, and eventually faded. (Courtesy the Gernsheim Collection, Ransom Centre, University of Texas, Austin), (Thanks to Robert Carter, Photographic Historical Society of Canada).

Two such men, each playing their own vital part in the unravelling of history as it pertains to the motion of pictures, were Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Alva Edison.

Well documented throughout the history of photography are the photographs taken by Muybridge of cats, dogs and the famous trotting horse. Muybridge concentrated his life's work on the study of the motion of humans and animals. His work in stop-action series photography is only one example, by one man, of the continual and improving way this medium matured.

Thanks to a simple wager regarding the movement of a horse's legs during a trot, Muybridge began to pave the way for cinematography to become an eventual reality of this world. It was almost as if he knew the extent to which his work, and it's direction would go in the next century. He actually spoke of the coming of film during his last years. As quoted from the preface of his book "Animals In Motion" published in 1898, Muybridge writes...

The combination of a Kinetoscope and Phonograph has not been satisfactorily accomplished. There can however be but little doubt that in the future... an entire opera with the gestures, facial expressions, and songs of the performers with all the accompanying music, will be recorded and reproduced by an apparatus for the instruction or entertainment of an audience. And if the photographs have been made stereoscopically, and each series be independently and synchronously projected on a screen, a perfectly realistic imitation of the original performance will be seen, in the apparent "round", by the use of properly constructed binocular glasses." - Eadweard Muybridge


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View from the window at gras [1826]

Muybridge's Zoopraxiscope of 1879

Zoopraxiscope disc

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