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First Films Scholars debate whether the American Thomas Edison or ....

 A. The First Films Scholars debate whether the American Thomas Edison or the French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière deserve credit for b...

 A. The First Films Scholars debate whether the American Thomas Edison or the French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière deserve credit for being the first to present motion pictures to the public. In the last decades of the 19th century many inventors were involved both in the drive to capture motion in a camera and to display the results. Edison, with his interest in sound and electricity, built a large electrically driven camera anchored in his studio in New Jersey;

 to market the resulting images, he devised a peepshow device, the kinetoscope, which he launched in 1894. The Lumière brothers developed a small, 6 lightweight apparatus, which they called the Cinématograph. It was easily carried and it was flexible. It could be used to take pictures, process the negatives, and project the positive images. In late December 1895, in Paris, it was the Lumières who were the first to project moving pictures of everyday life onto a screen before a paying audience. The Cinématograph at once became the market leader. Within a year Lumière operators were at work in all major cities in the world. Competitors, faced with patent restrictions, rushed to develop their own cameras and projection systems. But the showmen waiting to exploit these devices soon realized that the best profits lay not in the hardware - the cameras and projectors - but in the software, ownership of the moving images themselves. The first films ran for less than a minute. They were shown initially as part of established forms of mass entertainment in music halls and other popular locations. Consisting of one shot only, taken from a fixed camera position, the film was often replayed in a loop five or six times while a new item was threaded into a second projector. After the film show, the program would return to a variety number or vaudeville act. The subject matter of early films was extraordinarily varied. Many items simply duplicated music hall turns - girls dancing, burlesques, and comic pantomimes. But the movement of real life on the screen was what made motion pictures sensational: workers leaving a factory, a wave crashing against a promenade at Dover, the arrival of a train. What the first motion cameras documented was motion itself. That many early news-related films were staged should make us hesitate to attribute a serious documentary motive to films that are genuine. Most of the early titles had no greater purpose beyond enticing the crowd into the tent or entertainment parlor where they were shown. Their preservation in the United States is due to reels of paper copies that were sent to the Library of Congress for copyrighting as so many individual photographs. There was no provision yet for copyrighting films. In this “paper print” collection, however, some items suggest they may have been taken from a different motive. For example, Scenes in an Infant Orphan Asylum (1904) and a series of films about the United States Postal Service (1903) 

do not seem to have been made for their entertainment value. In the early twentieth century, however, there were a great many orphans in New York and groups interested in their welfare. Perhaps Scenes in an Infant Orphan Asylum was taken for a special screening. The film is long for this time period. It runs for more than eight minutes and there are only five shots in it. The first, showing nurses serving a long line of children with a meal, runs over four minutes in itself. Other shots are of activities, with one poor fellow having his head cropped and three others being scrubbed in tin tubs. The Postal Service assignment took the American Mutoscope and Biograph operator several days in the Washington DC area filming different operations. They illustrate mail collection, its sorting, bagging, despatch, and delivery in rural areas. Twenty-seven items relating to this assignment were sent for copyrighting to the Library of Congress, with an average length of 25 seconds each, fairly typical for the time. There’s no clue as to what lay behind this production. Perhaps they could have been shown together at a special training or recruiting session. Two items in the series depict the method whereby mail was set up on posts to be snatched up into a moving train. Thirty years later this would be the central theme of Night Mail, one of the best known 7 British documentary films of the 1930s.

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