Meet William Kennedy Dickson: The Unsung Pioneer of Moving Pictures

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By Ken Zurski

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William Kennedy Dickson

In 1879, at the age of 19, William Kennedy Dickson found himself in a burgeoning America with the promise of a good future for an aspiring entrepreneur who had just finished his education at England’s prestigious Cambridge University.

Dickson, who had a background in electrical invention, immediately sought work with an American scientist who was hiring a team of minds to do experiments on electricity at his lab in Menlo Park, California.

Go see Edison, Dickson was told.

Thomas Edison.

So he did.

Just being a fine chemist and intellectual wasn’t enough for the demanding Edison. He fired several qualified men because they “didn’t get results.” But Edison liked Dickson right away and put him in charge of his metallurgy laboratory.

Dickson also had a knack for photography, and Edison needed someone to document his work in pictures.  So in addition to his experiments in the lab, Dickson became a creative force behind the camera too.  A mission that would eventually lead him to head Edison’s efforts in finding a way to make pictures move.

But the phonograph came first. With it, Edison had a business and a product to sell. Entertainment, however, was not Edison’s strong suit.  Most of his products were focused on labor and used primarily for industry, like the diction phonograph. But leisure time was becoming important to Americans, and Edison saw a need to transition from production tools to consumer goods. The wax recording was a good example.

album3-1Alexander Graham Bell’s team came up with the original idea for the Graphophone, based on Edison’s previous phonograph design. It used wax over the cylinder and listening tubes for hearing. Bell’s group approached Edison for a partnership, but Edison refused. Instead he took their idea and perfected it, making a better and cleaner sounding phonograph, using the wax technology.

Before the turn of the century, the phonograph would be mass produced along with similar machines, including Bell’s. But even before the playback machines were ready for the market, Edison was sensing another profitable venture in the entertainment industry.

In 1888, he drew a sketch of a device he called the Kinetoscope, “an instrument which does for the eye, what the phonograph does for the ear.” This machine, he said, would “reproduce things in motion.” But added, “be cheap, practical and convenient.”

The man Edison chose to command this new venture was his chemist and photographer William Dickson.

It didn’t take long for Dickson and the team to come up with something functional. Applying the phonograph’s cylinder design and photographic celluloid Dickson was already using in his picture-making, within five months, a prototype emerged which showed considerable promise. Edison and Dickson tinkered with technology already established, like the telegraph, and applied it to their experiments. Dickson also used a Tachhyscope for inspiration. It used a series of pictures rotated and illuminated by a light and projected on a screen. Dickson hooked it up to the phonograph and produced what is in essence the first talking picture. He showed it to Edison. In the film, Dickson raises his hat and says “Good morning Mr. Edison, glad to see you back. I hope you are satisfied with the Kinetograph.” Dickson then counts to ten on his fingers; the sound perfectly synced to the image.

Edison was impressed, but didn’t like the idea of a picture projected on the wall. He thought it was impractical. Further experiments, he directed, should be on movies for coin-slots, similar to the phonograph. Dickson clearly disappointed by Edison’s reaction, kept the projection idea in mind while setting his team to work on the next design: a box with a viewing slot.

By 1897, the phonograph business was booming and everyone wanted in. Columbia gained control of American Gramophone and promptly sued Edison for patent rights. The suit was dropped after Columbia discovered their machines also relied on Edison’s earlier technology. A bidding war began over pricing. Most phonograph models were around $30, but Edison built a cheaper model called the “Gem” for only ten bucks. Kinetoscopes were selling too, but it was a much different process.  Edison could see the technology side of both of his entertainment machines, but not the art. He left that up to others, like Dickson, who made the films. Staged scenes of prize fights and vaudeville performers were the most popular.

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Edweard Muybridge

Things were changing for Dickson, however. He grew tired of making the same movies and sought work elsewhere. He left Edison in 1895 and joined Woodville Latham owner of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company who was already experimenting with light-focused over-sized images projected on a screen.

Dickson soon found out he wasn’t the only one interested in the projection idea.  Many others had researched it over the years, including Eadweard Muybridge, who projected drawings of animals in motion. At one point, Muybridge brought his Zoopraxiscope to Edison hoping to solve the problem of putting actual photographs on the cylinder, like the phonograph did with sound. Edison was interested only in the prospect of the invention, not the actual product. Again Edison thought he could improve on an original design. The problem was projection, something Edison had little interest in at the time.

But thanks to Muybridge and Dickson, the projection idea did not fade away.  In fact it flourished under those who believed it was the future of moving pictures. By the time a projection system was ready for public use, Dickson’s new employer Latham had been been bought out by another company headed by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Both inventors and investors, Jenkins and Armat needed someone who could produce the machines and supply films. They asked Edison to join in. The projector, called the Vitascope would soon be changed to the Projectoscope, Edison’s improved design. When the first motion picture was shown to a New York theater audience in 1896,  Edison would get credit for it. Dickson and other early pioneers of the projection system were left in the dark. Especially Dickson ,who would remain mostly anonymous.

But that would change.

album3-1Perhaps slighted by Edison’s unwillingness to share public credit with him, Dickson wrote a book titled “History of the Kinetoscope, Kinethograph, Kinetoscope & Kinetophonograph.” In it, Dickson gives himself credit for the work in Edison’s lab and claims “co-patentee” honors with Edison on the Kinetoscope design. Edsion objected, especially the part about Dickson being the co-inventor. “Mr. Dickson will get full credit for the work he has done without trying to ram it down people’s throats,” Edison angrily rebutted.

Through the years, historians have debated Dickson’s role in moving pictures.  Some claim Dickson was a product of Edison’s meticulously controlled experiments and first rate facilities. Anyone with Dickson’s background would have made the best of it, they argue. Others believe Edison was ruthless and loved fame more than acknowledgment. He absolutely refused to share success with others.

Regardless of the discourse, Dickson eventually returned to London where he died in 1935 at the age of 75.

But all is not lost.

Today, Dickson is known exclusively for inventing one machine called the Mutoscope.

Slighted by Edison on the projection design, and receiving no attribution for his role in creating it, Dickson made another variation of the Kinetoscope using a simple “flip-book” design run by a crank rather than electricity. The Mutoscope soon found an appreciative audience. It began to appear in amusement parlors in the U.S. and pleasure piers throughout Europe. It served mostly one purpose: satisfying men’s desires to view busty ladies in various stages of undress.

“What the Butler Saw” is what they called the Mutoscope in England.

In America, it became more widely known as a “peep show.”

Dickson gets credit for that.

edison-kinetoscope-feat

(A good portion of the retelling of this story comes from Edison: A life of Invention by Paul Israel).

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