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(Listen to some ragtime while you visit!)

A Brief History

Before 1889, moving pictures fall into two categories:
1) Magic lantern shows: Glass slides are projected onto a screen, and are combined and manipulated to create a moving image. These shows range from the simple (single slides) to the elaborate (Reynaud's Theatre Optique).
2) Early animation: The illusion of smooth movement is created when a series of pictures is flipped in quick succession on cards, rotated on a strip of paper inside a drum (the zootrope) or spun on a disc.

1889 -The development of celluloid film sheets makes true "moving pictures" possible. Assistants in Thomas Edison's lab (namely William K.L. Dickson) are assigned to the task of "inventing the movies." During the next four years, work progresses on the kinetoscope (motion picture viewer) and kinetograph (motion picture camera). Films in a kinetoscope are viewed by looking into the machine through a peep-hole and turning the crank.

1891 -Edison files a patent for his kinetoscope.

the Black Maria

1893 -Edison gives his first public demonstration of a kinetoscope. He also constructs his famous Black Maria motion picture studio. Early films require extremely bright light, so natural sunlight is utilized whenever possible. The Black Maria is able to rotate to face the sun, and the roof opens up to let the light in.

1894 -The first Kinetoscope Parlor opens in Manhattan. All sorts of penny arcades and amusement centers begin to feature the viewing machines. Patrons can drop a penny in, look through the opening, turn the crank and watch the "living pictures." Music and sound effects often accompany the film.

It's a common misconception that
movies didn't "talk" until the late
1920s. This isn't true...they talked
all along, just not very well!

1894 -It is the goal of film pioneers to eventually combine moving pictures and recorded sound. In fact, Edison originally considers film to be nothing more than a companion to the phonograph, which was invented in 1877. Several devices are invented to synchronize movies with cylinder sound recordings, and one of these is Edison's kinetophone (a kinetoscope machine with a phonograph player in the base). Some of these devices are more successful than others, but the results are mediocre at best, and the process doesn't really catch on.

1895 & 1896 -In France, the Lumiere brothers develop the cinematographe, which projects motion pictures onto a screen for the first time. In America, a whole host of machines are invented that also project movies. These include the vitascope, phantoscope and projecting kinetoscope. Films can now be shown to many people simultaneously, which makes them more profitable. It's not surprising that movies first become commercially successful around this time. Vaudeville theaters begin to show motion pictures as part of their regular line-up of acts.


1900 -Motion pictures are a regular part of vaudeville shows, and kinetoscope machines can still be found in most penny arcades and amusement parlors. The movies are very short, and usually consist of nature shots (breaking waves), action shots (trains & street scenes), brief comic interludes, short variety acts, current events (the Spanish-American War) and boxing matches (which prove extremely popular). These snippets of real life are known as actuality films.

1901 -Edison builds the first indoor glass-enclosed studio.

1902 -The birth of movies as we know them. They no longer simply record the world around us; they begin to tell stories as well. In France, the innovative films of Georges Melies are the first to make use of special effects. Many filmmakers experiment with color by hand-tinting each frame individually. Several pioneering films are made during this time: "A Trip to the Moon" (1902), "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1903) and "The Great Train Robbery" (1903).

1905 -The idea of the Nickelodeon is born. Films are becoming more available and projection equipment is becoming cheaper. This makes it possible for many small-time amusement operators to open motion picture theaters of their own. Also called 5-cent theaters, theaterets, electric theaters and nickelets, they bridge the gap between the simple, old-fashioned kinetoscope machines and the big-time vaudeville shows. They occupy vacant stores and shops...any place that can accomodate a screen, projector, piano and enough chairs for 50 to 200 people.

1907 -Nickel Madness! Nickelodeons are a sensation! A typical visit to a 5-Cent Theater begins out on the street, where large posters and blaring announcements attract the public's attention. Inside, patrons find rows of chairs and a large white screen surrounded by advertisements. For five cents, they are treated to 20 minutes of entertainment, including the movie and maybe a sing-along. Before the movie begins, slides are projected onto the screen reminding patrons to remove their hats and to "please read the titles to yourself." The film is accompanied by piano music in the larger establishments, or by mechanical music machines in the smaller ones.

1907 -Already, people are worried about the impact these "nickel emporiums" are having on the public. Detractors see them as immoral and indecent, filled with undesirable customers and unscrupulous operators. On the plus side, they bring amusement and education to people who otherwise could not afford it. Cities have large immigrant populations, and motion pictures prove to be an amusement that everyone can enjoy, regardless of the language they speak.

1907 -Motion pictures during this time exhibit many of the technologies we see in today's films: they employ both stop-motion and time-lapse photography, and work is underway to develop methods of applying color to the film by machine. Many films are "washed" in color to simulate different moods or times of day (for example, a dark-blue tint to simulate night).

1910 -Up until this time, the performers appearing in motion pictures are usually stage actors who consider it "beneath them" to do movies. Actors receive no screen credit, which is fine with them. However, this is about to change. The public is beginning to recognize and request their favorite performers, and consequently the movies and posters are beginning to list the actors' names. The first performers to take advantage of this are Florence Lawrence ("The Biograph Girl") and Mary Pickford ("The Girl With The Curls"). They are the first real movie stars.

1911 -Up until now, motion pictures have been made chiefly on the East Coast. However, the major studios are beginning to consider the benefits of relocating to California. For one thing, the excellent climate provides plenty of sunshine for filming. Many studios begin the move to the West Coast.

1913-1918 -Movies come of age. Most filming is done outside Los Angeles, near the pretty little village of Hollywood. Nickelodeons grow to become "picture palaces" and musical accompaniment is provided by anything from a piano to an organ to a full orchestra. Great advances are made in the fields of color photography, synchronized disc soundtracks and films with the soundtrack embedded on them.

Performers like Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks and Mabel Normand are bona fide movie stars, with hordes of screaming fans. Many classics are made during this time, including "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance." Serials ("The Perils of Pauline") and comedies ("The Keystone Kops") are also popular.

1918 -Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith join forces to form United Artists. This move makes it possible for actors to have more control over the movies they appear in.

1919-1927 -The "golden age." Stars like Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks, Lon Chaney, Laurel & Hardy, Rudolph Valentino and Harold Lloyd are popular. Films with color scenes begin to appear more often after the Two-Strip Technicolor process is developed in 1923. In 1926 and 1927, electronic recording makes the first successful film sound systems possible: Vitaphone (synchronized discs) and Movietone (embedded soundtracks). This paves the way for the first successful "soundies."

1927 -"The Jazz Singer" is released, and the public goes crazy for it. It contains both silent and sound segments, and this time it's just what the movie-going public is ready for. The movie is a sensation, signaling the end of the silent era forever.

More Information

* George Eastman House Pre-Cinema -a collection of magic lanterns & zootropes
* The American Magic Lantern Theater
* Museum Of The Moving Image

~~~The Early Years~~~
* History Of Edison Motion Pictures
* Georges Melies
* Moving Pictures That Talk: The Early History Of Film Sound
* Early Cinema As Invention, Entertainment, Instruction
* The Peephole Kinetoscope
* San Francisco Kinetoscope Parlor

~~~The Nickelodeon Experience~~~
* Nickel Madness
* Ladies, Kindly Remove Your Hats! -nickelodeon slides
* Illustrated Song Slides

~~~General Links~~~
* -thousands of movie star photos
* Glen Pringle's Silent Movie site -the first silent movies site on the web
* Silent Film Bookshelf -articles published during the silent era
* Hollywood Silents
* Welcome To Silent Movies
* Cinema History Timeline


Those old movies may have
lacked a soundtrack, but
they were far from silent!

Music and sound effects
were provided by pianos,
singers, orchestras and
theater organs, like the
Wurlitzer shown here

* Ragtime Press -ragtime MIDIs listed alphabetically...perfect for silent films!
* Silent Movie Music -in MIDI format
* Theatre Organs

Silent Stars & Studios

* Mary Pickford
* Lillian Gish
* Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
* Buster Keaton
* Clara Bow
* Mabel Normand
* Harold Lloyd
* Laurel & Hardy
* Gloria Swanson
* Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
* Rudolph Valentino
* Lon Chaney

* Movie Studios In The 1910s
* Hollywood Studio Tour
* The Biograph Company

About The Films

~~~Specific Films~~~
* Erich Von Stroheim's "Greed"
* "The Great Train Robbery"
* "A Trip To The Moon"
* "A Trip To The Moon" -fan site
* "Broken Blossoms"
* "Birth Of A Nation"
* "Intolerance"
* Edison Film: "The Butterfly Dance"
* "The General"

~~~Films In General~~~
* The Greatest Films Before 1920
* The Serials: An Introduction
* Silent & Sound Cliffhanger Serials
* Unknown Video -purchase silent films online
* Happy Video -rare silents & talkies
* Northwest Dramas

See silent movies on the web!

* "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) -RealPlayer, Quicktime or MPEG
* Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle clips -Quicktime required
* Films of the Edison Company -Quicktime required, many clips also use RealPlayer
* MovieFlix -RealPlayer & free registration required, some titles require paid membership
* The Spanish-American War In Motion Pictures -RealPlayer, Quicktime, or MPEG
* Origins Of American Animation -short films in RealPlayer, Quicktime, or MPEG
* Variety Stage -vaudeville acts in RealPlayer, Quicktime, or MPEG
* Silent Movie Video Clips -MediaPlayer required
* Buster Keaton Clips On YouTube
* Charlie Chaplin Clips On YouTube
* Mary Pickford Clips On YouTube
* YouTube Playlist: 1900s Movies
* YouTube Playlist: 1910s Movies
* YouTube Playlist: 1920s Movies

The Lisa's Silent Movie Page title card was created for me by my buddy Michael. Thank you! :)