On April 23, 1896, an audience gathered in the darkened Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. They had come to witness the Vitascope—“Edison’s Greatest Marvel,” as posters from the period billed the new projector developed by the American inventor Thomas Edison. The rapt audience was thrilled as it watched moving pictures projected onto a 20-foot white screen housed in a giant gold picture frame.
A New York Times account published the following day described the event: “… a buzzing and roaring were heard in the turret, and an unusually bright light fell upon the screen. Then came into view two precious blonde young persons of the variety stage in pink and blue dresses, doing the umbrella dance with commendable celerity.” The program of silent moving images also included “a burlesque boxing match between a tall, thin comedian and a short, fat one,” “a view of an angry surf breaking on a sandy beach near a stone pier,” and “a skirt dance by a tall blonde.” The “views … were all wonderfully real and singularly exhilarating.”
Today’s motion-picture audiences, accustomed to Hollywood blockbusters exploding with spectacular 3D special effects, would no doubt find such a program of films quite dull. But on April 23, 1896, this audience became the first to see a motion picture in a theater in the United States. The American audience cheered for Edison’s new projector, operated that day by Edwin S. Porter—who went on to direct the landmark film The Great Train Robbery (1903), released by Edison’s company.
However, Edison did not exactly invent the new motion-picture projector. It was an adaptation of a device called the Phantoscope, developed by the American inventors Francis C. Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Jenkins and Armat clashed over the patent of the Phantoscope, and Jenkins sold his interest in the projector to Armat. Armat demonstrated the Phantoscope for the American businessmen Norman C. Raff and Frank R. Gammon, two of the owners of the Kinetoscope Company. The company was one of several that marketed Edison’s kinetoscope. Introduced in 1894, the kinetoscope was the first commercial device for viewing motion pictures. Raff and Gammon negotiated with Armat to purchase rights to the Phantoscope and approached Edison for his approval. The Edison Manufacturing Company agreed to manufacture the projector and to produce films for it under the condition that it be advertised and marketed as a new Edison invention called the Vitascope. It became the first commercially successful motion-picture projecting device.
In November 1896, the Edison Manufacturing Company developed its own projector, the Projectoscope (or Projecting Kinetoscope), abandoning the Vitascope. Edison continued to make improvements to motion pictures. In 1913, he debuted his latest version of the kinetophone—a combination kinetoscope and phonograph. The kinetophone synchronized sound and images. The device used a pulley to attach a phonograph to a projector.
In addition, Edison and other inventors tried to control the motion-picture industry. In 1908, they formed the Motion Picture Patents Company. The company largely controlled the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures in the United States. But in 1915, a federal court declared the company to be an illegal monopoly. Afterward, Edison and most other members of the Motion Picture Patents Company lost much of their influence in filmmaking.
As history would have it, the Vitascope did not turn out to be “Edison’s Greatest Marvel.” Instead, the inventor’s legacy rested on his more famous earlier contributions: the phonograph (1877) and the first useful electric light (1879).