APS News

This Month in Physics History

February 2, 1893: Edison Records First Sneeze on Film

The kinetograph was developed by Thomas Edison. (©1997 The Learning Company, Inc.)
The kinetograph was developed by Thomas Edison. (©1997 The Learning Company, Inc.)

The millions of viewers who flock to movie theaters every weekend to view the latest Hollywood blockbusters rarely stop to consider the technological roots of the entertainment industry we now take for granted. Although many scientists and inventors experimented with moving pictures in the latter part of the 19th century, it was famed American inventor Thomas Edison who patented one of the earliest motion picture cameras (which he called a kinetograph), using his invention to make short films to be viewed with a companion invention: the kinetoscope.

Born in 1847 in Milan, Ohio, Edison grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, evincing early on a strong curiosity about the world around him, and making new discoveries through books and homemade experiments. In 1869, when he was 22 years old, Edison patented his first invention (the electrographic vote recorder) and thereafter devoted his life to accumulating more than 1,000 different inventions, drawing on his own initiative and that of his employees at the Edison Manufacturing Company.

By 1878, Edison had been granted a patent for a phonograph, and ten years later had become interested in extending that technology to include combined moving pictures and sound. "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion," he wrote in 1888. Decades before Edison began his work on what would become the first kinetoscope and kinetograph, people were fashioning crude hand-drawn motion pictures, similar to today's animated cartoons.

Eventually British photographer Eadweard Muybridge helped pioneer a process in which a series of pictures would be taken of a subject in motion and then shown back in sequence. Muybridge set up 700 cameras in sequence to photograph a trotting horse, which yielded a mere 60 seconds of motion picture when all the photographs were viewed back in sequence. In 1888, Edison met with Muybridge to discuss adding sound to his moving pictures. Muybridge declined, but Edison was undaunted and set about inventing his own motion picture machine. "My plan was to synchronize the camera and the phonograph so as to record sounds when the pictures were made, and reproduce the two in harmony," he recalled in 1925.

The basic concept of Edison's kinetograph and kinetoscope was to employ a cylinder similar to those used in the phonograph, place it inside a camera and then coat it with a light sensitive material. Every time a picture was taken, the cylinder rotated slightly, taking another picture. The crude film was then processed and run through a viewer in slow motion.

Serendipitously, it was about this time that George Eastman introduced a new celluloid film which began to replace the old system of using light sensitive plates and large bulky cameras (which eventually led to the manufacture of the "Brownie" camera). In 1889, Edison ordered some of the new film cut into long strips. His assistant, William Dickson, developed a sprocket system for a camera that would move the film past the lens when turned by a crank (the kinetography). In order to view the films, Edison's team invented the kinetoscope. Edison applied for a patent on these inventions in 1891, which was granted six years later.

One of the first films Edison made was of a laboratory worker in his Newark, NJ, laboratory, named Fred Ott, who acted out a sneeze on February 2, 1893. The sound of the sneeze was recorded on a phonograph to be played back with the film, and the experiment proved to be a success. Encouraged, Edison's team began producing movies in a studio at his West Orange Laboratory, dubbed "Black Maria." Essentially a large structure covered with tar paper, the studio featured a hole in the ceiling to allow the sun to shine through and illuminate the stage. The entire building was built on a set of tracks to enable Edison's team to move it around as the sun moved through the sky over the course of a day.

These films - which initially lasted only a few seconds - were shown on kinetoscopes placed in arcades around the county. For a nickel, patrons could view short films of circus performers, dancers or animals. Eventually the team produced a 15-minute thriller, "The Great Train Robbery," and went on to develop more that 2,000 other short films. In 1913 Edison unveiled the first talking motion picture, as well as the first color motion picture, achieved by hand-painting each frame of a black and white film. Since then the motion picture industry has far outstripped these humble technological beginnings, but it was the pioneering advances of Edison and his crew that provided the foundation for all the technical developments that came after.

For more information about the life and work of Thomas Edison, see www.hfmgv.org/histories/edison/invents.html.

Birthdays for February:

11 — J. Willard Gibbs (1839)
14 — Galileo Galilei (1564)
18 — Alessandro Volta (1745)
19 — Nicolaus Copernicus (1473)
20 — Ludwig Boltzmann (1844)

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette