125 years ago April 23, 1896, Thomas Edison’s newest invention and update to the Kinetoscope, the Vitascope, premiered to a paying audience in Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. For the first time in the United States, mass audiences could view moving pictures on a giant screen.
Built as much to compete with France’s Lumiere Brothers, who premiered their own projecting system in Paris December 28 1895, as to advance his own Kinetoscope and dominate the American film market, Edison’s Vitascope made moving pictures a spectacle, an event, allowing pictures and emotions to wash over and move a mass audience rather than just a series of small pictures entertaining one person at a time.
Audiences had clamored for story telling images and even moving pictures for ages. First described in print in 1646, the magic lantern projected still images such as colored slides one at a time, telling stories. Audiences clamored for more, looking for realistic movement and action that copied life. In 1868, flip books combined sequential images with gradual changes that when viewed in quick action, became animated. John Barnes Linnett patented the first flip book in 1868 under the name Kineograph, which means “moving picture.”
Many experimented with photography, animated images, and projection equipment over several decades in the race to create larger and more powerful graphic images. Edison began working on projection equipment merely as a way to further promote his phonograph machine, while focusing more on electricity and x-ray equipment. Working with his staff and people like W.K.L. Dickson, he developed an individual moving image machine called the Kinetoscope. These early machines projected single images on a fifty feet long strip that lasted about 20 seconds.
Aiming to win the movie projection business, Edison purchased the rights to Thomas Arnad’s projector which utilized a Latham loop. In early 1896, Edison projected images to a few workers at his West Orange, New Jersey factory under the machine’s new branded name, the Vitascope. Newspapers around the country such as the San Bernardino Sun trumpeted the news. On April 5, 1896, the paper printed a wire report of the successful screening in Edison’s factory, calling it “a grown-up Kinetoscope.” The San Francisco Call described it as “instantaneous photography.”
“Edison calls his latest invention ‘the Vitascope,’ which, he says, means a machine showing life, and that is exactly what the new apparatus does…The film roll on which the photographs were attached was arranged over a half dozen spools and pulleys, and the machine was set in motion…The original photographs are about the size of a special-delivery postage stamp and to produce a life-size picture they are magnified about 600 times.”
On April 23, a paying audience experienced the first public showing of films projected by the new Vitascope at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall. Customers waited through six numbers of a regular music hall show for the exciting festivities to begin. At nearly 10 pm as the seventh number of the program, the Vitascope program of six films began. As the Meriden Daily Republican reported, “The house was packed, and as picture after picture was thrown on the screen the applause was tremendous.”
The program consisted of the 1895 “Rough Sea at Dover” by Britain’s R.W. Paul, “Band Drill/The Milk White Flag” (Edison, 1894), “Serpentine Dance” (Edison, 1894), “Umbrella Dance” (Edison, 1895), “Walton and Slavin Boxing” (Edison, 1894), and “The Monroe Doctrine” (Edison, 1896).”The Serpentine Dance” entertained audiences, especially since it featured the popular “Annabelle,” a popular dancer on the stage for 3 years. Dancing as early as 1893 in Chicago under the name Annabelle Moore, and also either Whitford or Whetfon, she performed her popular serpentine dance imitating a butterfly. The waves breaking on the shore most entertained the crowd. “The waves were high and boisterous as they dashed after one another in their rush for the sandy beach, over which they ebbed and flowed. The white crests of the waves and the huge volume of water were true to life. Only the roar of the surf was needed to make the illusion perfect.” At the conclusion, the audience cheered as someone cried, “Hurrah for Edison!”
The New York Times reviewed the show a few days later. “The Vitascope differs from the Kinetoscope in its size and the size of its pictures; it differs in that its effects are almost the acme of realism; it differs in its possibilities, which, theatrical managers say, are boundless.” It concluded, “So enthusiastic was the appreciation of the crowd long before this extraordinary exhibition was finished that vociferous cheering was heard.”
Within days of that first show on April 23, Koster and Bial’s advertised the Vitascope as “Edison’s Greatest Marvel.” The New York Herald stated, “Wonderful is The Vitascope. Pictures life size and full of color. Makes a thrilling show.” Moving pictures were now larger than life, creating mass entertainment on an operatic scale that both thrilled and stimulated audiences.
This anniversary could not come at a more perfect time, as Americans increasingly become vaccinated against COVID-19. Soon life will hopefully return more to normal and audiences can return to movie theaters to once again see films on giant screens, experiencing how powerful moving images can be when viewed together.