The First Movie: From Antiquity – 1900

The short answer for the question, “What is the first movie?”, depends on your definition of a movie.  Are you looking for the earliest projected image?  Then the answer would be  images that were projected through Magic Lanterns, a centuries old device comprised of a light source and glass.  The first projection using film would be the 1887 film Man Walking Around the Corner by Le Prince.  The first commercial release of motion capture would be seconds long short films designed for the Zoetrope.  The first feature film was The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight in 1897 at over an hour long.  The first motion picture that had a story arc is considered to be The Story of the Kelly Gang, a 1906 Australian film with a run time of 60 minutes that played in several countries.  What can be pinpointed as the “first movie” is subjective and up for individual interpretation.


If one defines a movie simply as a series of projected images that demonstrate the illusion of movement, then this could have been achieved with a Magic Lantern.1  Deac Rossell, Lecturer at the Universtiy of London, wrote of Charles Patin, a Parisian medical doctor, who saw a Magic Lantern show in July of 1672.2  Patin’s description of the Magic Lantern show he viewed is the most extensive surviving account of a 17th century Magic Lantern presentation.2

‘For it seem’d to me as if I had a sight of Paradise,’ wrote Patin, ‘of Hell and of wand’ring Spirits and Phantoms, so that altho’ I know myself to be endu’d with some measure of Resoluteness, yet at that time I wol’d wilingly have given one half to save theother: All thes Appiritions suddenly disappear’d and gave place to Shews of another nature: For in a moment I saw the Air fill’d with all sorts of Birds, almost after the same manner as they are usually painted round about Orpheus, and in the twinkling of an Eye, a Country-Wedding appear’d to my view, with so natural and lively a representation that I imagin’d myself to be one of the Guests at the Solemnity.’3

Patin’s account is ambiguous in whether or not fluid motion was presented to simulate what we would consider to be a movie.2 Although, with this loose definition of a movie, the first movie could potentially be some time in the 17th century.  This might be a little ridiculous to go that far back, but it is worth noting that the concept has been around for centuries.


The 19th century is when real developments into cameras, projections, and film began to revolutionize film as an entertainment medium.  This can be seen in the early 1830’s when “Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau and his sons introduced the phenakistoscope (‘spindle viewer’).  It was also invented independently in the same year by Simon von Stampfer of Vienna, Austria, who called his invention a stroboscope.”Both the phenakistoscope and stroboscope were spinning disks with images depicting movement in different stages.  When the disks were spun it would give the illusion of movement as the different images blended seamlessly together.

The phenakistiscope was comprised of a handle attached to a disk with images painted onto one side, the images were laid out like spokes on a bicycle wheel (image above).  Slits were cut equidistant from one another around the circumference of the disk.  The viewer would hold the disk with the images facing away from them and face a mirror. While the disk would spin it would create the illusion in the mirror of animated movement.  While this is not a projection, or a movie, it is a precursor for future developments.


In 1834 William Horner invented the Daedalum, an adaptation of the principles of the Phenakistoscope.6  His design placed the images on the inside of a drum with slits on the side, to allow the viewer to look into the drum.  Spinning the drum and looking through the slits at the pictures on the inside would provide the illusion of movement (image below).  The changes allowed for multiple viewers at one time and did not require the use of a mirror.7


In 1843 T.W. Naylor proposed and designed a projected version of the phenakistiscope (image below).  This concept would take an antiquated technology, like the Magic Lantern, and combine it with the new technology of the time.  In the book, Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern, editors David Robinson, Stephen Herbert, & Richard Crangle explain Naylor’s design.

T.W. Naylor was an English moving picture experimenter of Newcastle, who, in 1842, described a spinning-ring device for demonstrating visual persistence. In 1843 Naylor proposed a projecting phenakistiscope, a ‘Phantasmagoria for the exhibition of moving figures’, illuminated by an Argand lamp, for showing sequence pictures painted around a glass disc. … Both picture disc and shutter disc revolved in the same directions, with the latter placed between the two elements of the objective lens. Naylor suggested tracing onto glass, picture sequences from the cardboard discs sold by Ackermann & Co. He published a detailed drawing of the projector, but there is no known reference to a demonstration, and nothing else is known of Naylor. 9

10 – http/


In 1867, 33 years after Horner’s Daedalum, a patent was granted to William E. Lincoln of Providence, Rhode Island for his commercial version of the Daedalum.11  He renamed the product Zoetrope and worked with the Milton Bradley Company to produce it commercially.12  Through Milton Bradley, many Zoetrope strips would be made and sold for the zoetrope.13


Ten years later, in 1877, Charles-Émile Reynaud invented a device that took the Zoetrope one step closer to projection.  “This ingenious moving image toy featured a central circle of mirrors set in a shallow cylinder, opposite colour-lithographed sequence drawings on paper strips.”14  The design was similar to a Zoetrope, only there was a series of mirrors in the center that would reflect the image from the inner drum, instead of just looking through to the opposite side of the drum through a slit.  The glass was also positioned at an angle so that the reflected image could be viewed over the top of the drum itself.  This design would be a precursor to a more sophisticated invention by the same designer known as the Théâtre Optique.  This development would not be for a few more years, so there is more on this below.


In 1879 Eadweard Muybridge took the concept of simulated motion further by capturing motion through photography and then projecting these images in succession to an audience.  It began with Muybridge’s desire to find definitive proof that all four legs of a horse are off the ground at one point while trotting.  In Muybridge’s The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, Illustrated with the Zoopraxiscope he outlines his design and findings.

At this time much controversy prevailed among experienced horsemen as to whether all the feet of a horse while trotting were entirely clear of the ground…Being much interested with the experiments of Professor Marey, in 1877 I invented a method for the employment of a number of photographic cameras, arranged in a line parallel to a track over which the animal would be caused to move, with the object of obtaining, at regulated intervals of time or distance, several consecutive impressions of him during a single complete stride…16

Muybridge not only captured the motion of the horse, but was also able to transfer the photographs to glass and project the images to an audience.  The images would be copied onto a glass wheel that would project the image when light passed through it.  Much like the Magic Lanterns of antiquity.  His projection device was called the Zoopraxiscope.


“The following analyses of some of the movements investigated by the aid of electro-photographic exposures, are repeated by permission by the President and Council from a paper read by the author before the royal society, and are rendered more perfectly intelligible by the reproductions of the actual motions projected on a screen through the Zoopraxiscope.”16

The predecessors to the Zoopraxiscope were intended for use by individuals.  With Muybridge’s ability to project the images, he was able to show his work to an audience.

“…Muybridge triumphed on a lecture circuit [in Paris] as well, presenting his work at the Royal Institution, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Savage Club, and the South Kensington Museum…”17

Muybridge’s work in capturing motion through photography and effectively projecting the images to an audience was an influential step towards the future of film projection. His glass wheel method created a constraint in terms of length of the content, but a dramatic step forward nonetheless.

The Horse In Motion (1878)

One major flaw in Muybridge’s design is that the use of multiple cameras made it so the images did not originate from a single point. One contemporary of Muybridge’s, E.J. Marey, a notable figure in the photography and cinematography world, had a solution to this problem.    His solution to this problem was to develop the photographic gun.  These were already around, but not for the purpose of taking several pictures in a row.  Marta Braun describes Marey’s desire to solve Muybridge’s problem in her book, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904).

Marey was convinced that photography could be used to expand the range of the graphic method…a way of developing a photographic instrument for his work that would overcome the inadequacies of Muybridge’s system.25

Marta goes on to say:

Marey’s dream of a photographic gun was not merely idle reverie.  Photographic pistols — small gun-shaped cameras that took a single instantaneous shot — had been on the market since 1860.  Marey, however, was more likely thinking of a gun that would make series of pictures…25
Louis Le Prince – The Father of Cinematography

This brings us to the next influential character in the history of film, Louis Le Prince.  His story brings the earliest patented camera projector along with a disturbing mystery.  Jay Robert Nash summarizes Prince’s story in his 1978 book, Among The Missing: An Anecdotal History of Missing Persons from 1800 to the Present.

On March 30, 1890, Le Prince displayed his amazing process by projecting pictures onto a large screen before many officials at the Paris Opera House. (The new invention was patented under his name in France on January 11, 1888, Patent No. 188,089.)  The effect was electrifying, and the inner circle to which Le Prince had confided realized that he was the father of cinematography.  Yet the public at large was never to know his name.18

Louis Le Prince patented several different cameras.  His earliest had 16 lenses and ran into the same problem as Muybridge’s design: the multi-lens design made the projected sequence disjointed.  This caused him to  work on a single lens solution.

Louis Le Prince’s LPCCP Type-1 MkII was patented in 1888 and allowed for photographs to be taken from a single lens.19  Thus making the images smoother when played in rapid succession.  The camera was used to make several film sequences.  Remnants of these sequences exist today, including: Man Walking Around Corner, Roundhay Garden Scene, Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge, and Accordion Player.

Man Walking Around A Corner (1887)

While the remaining footage of Man Walking Around a Corner is extremely short, it is an influential relic from the late 19th century.  This is the oldest filmed scene to be replayed through a projector to an audience.  Le Prince followed this up with a sequence that the Guinness Book of World Records calls the oldest film, Roundhay Garden Scene (circa 1888).20

Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)

This scene is longer than Man Walking Around a Corner, which is likely the reason that it is regarded as the oldest film.

In Among The Missing: An Anecdotal History of Missing Persons from 1800 to the Present, Nash also describes Louis Le Prince’s mysterious dissapearance.

Louis Le Prince was about to announce his discovery to the world as he boarded the Dijon train in September 1890.  He was a distinguished-looking man, almost six feet, four inches tall, and he stood out in the crowd as he carried his luggage onto the train.  He never arrived in Paris.  No one ever saw Louis Le Prince again, and his marvelous invention was subsequently credited to the Lumiere brothers, whose cinematographic inventions were first shown in March 1895… 18

Louis Le Prince’s disappearance remains a mystery to this day.  Several theories exist as to the cause of his disappearance.  Some believe that it was an accident, while others believe foul play was involved.  Regardless of what happened, his developments would influence many to come and help shape the future of film.

There was, however, a major flaw in Le Prince’s camera design in that it did not use perforated film and the film quality was weak.  In Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, edited by John Hannavy, this flaw is described.

Projection was more of a problem, due to the unsuitability of the paper base and the registration difficulties with unperforated bands… These machines did not succeed to Le Prince’s satisfaction, and he probably experimented with celluloid which offered a more suitable image base, in 1889/1890.21

Without going too in depth into film stock, it is important to note the advancement of perforated film stock.  The technological advancement into perforated stock allowed for more seamless transitions between frames.  In the introduction of American Cinema 1890 – 1909: Themes and Variations, André Gaudreault and Tom Gunning refer to Charles-Émile Reynaud as the “principle of the perforated film strip (ca. 1888)… With a system of cog-wheels, the perforations in the strips of images he showed in his Théâtre Optique made possible even and stable projection…”22  This key development would allow film playback and projection to reach a new level.

Théâtre Optique

While on the topic of Théâtre Optique, it is interesting to note that this could be considered the first commercial film projector.  There is only one caveat, and that is the fact that this was only used for painted images.  The Théâtre Optique was an adaptation of Reynaud’s Praxinoscope except it projected the images to an audience.23  Since this is a painted image and not a photographed scene being projected, I felt it did not meet the criteria for first movie.  However, this could be the earliest public projection of a movie for the purpose of entertainment in the 19th century. The picture below is one of the first frames from Reynaud’s “Pauve Pierrot”, that depicts the Théâtre Optique.

Théâtre Optique

Here is a clip from Charles-Émile Reynaud’s animated feature Pauvre Pierrot. This was first shown to audiences on October 28th, 1892.24 

Pauve Pierrot (1892)
Thomas Edison – Kinetescope

Up until this point, the concept of films had been invented, although they had not yet reached a wide audience.  This is where Thomas Edison, aka the Wizard of Menlo Park, made his mark on the scene.  His developments were important to the way the film was handled during projection and the amount of public exposure he was able to bring to the budding film industry.  His initial contribution was a peep show style projection unit, designed in 1889, for individual use.  Marta Braun describes Edison’s influence as follows:

Edison had described these perforations for the first time in the fourth motion picture caveat, and they were an important advance even though, once more, they were not original — in France Emile Reynaud had patented the perforations used to move his animated film band in 1888, and in England in the same year Louis-Aime Le Prince published a description of perforations that he used in his ‘film ribbons.’…the Kinetoscope images were on a film loop, which meant that whereas Demeny and Anschutz were able to make projections of only approximately four seconds, Edison’s Kinetoscope film lasted for up to forty…Edison’s machine was nothing new.  But in another sense the Kinetoscope was unique: Edison had the financial clout, the labor, and the space to massproduce Kinetoscopes for license.  Thus the dissemination and commercial exploitation of the Kinetoscope were in great part responsible for the enormous progress made in creating a motion picture industry…25

Edison’s Kinetescope was not as novel as the inventions before him, but he had the resources and the means to expand the precision and publicity of the film industry.  One disadvantage to the Kinetoscope was that it was designed for a single viewer (the image below shows how the device functioned).  It is clear to see that it is bulky and only allowed for a single user, however, it is also clear to see the technological advancement in the way the film itself is handled and projected for the individual.


After the release of the Kinetoscope, several inventors began to develop projectors.  Different designs steered away from the “peep show” style of entertainment  and moved towards a system that would allow multiple users at one time.  The first to submit a patent in the US was Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat with their Phantoscope (image below), in 1895.  Their design successfully projected the image, however, it altered the picture quality in two ways.  Firstly, it created a smoother picture quality by not streaming a continuous stream of light, like Edison’s kinetoscope, but instead pulsed the light behind each frame.  At the same time, it created a lower overall picture quality due to the distance the light had to travel before it reached the projector screen.  The Phantoscope used the same film reels as the kinetoscopes, which were designed to have a strong light behind it and project the image a close distance away from the light source.  The phantoscope’s projection would become dimmer the farther away the projector was from the screen.26  The technology was moving in the right direction, but was not quite up to the necessary standards.


The Phantoscope failed to reach a wide audience, however viewings were still put on in October 1895.27  Poor promotion and thus poor attendance put a strain on the Phantoscope’s success.27

The Lumière Brothers

Over in Europe there were several influential developments going on at the same time.  The Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste Lumière, were filming their own sequences and further developing film perforation techniques.  The Lumiére brothers bought Léon Bouly’s patent from 1892 to develop the Cinematograph, a film camera, projector, and printer (image below).  The Lumiére brothers submitted their patent on  February 13, 1895 and soon after began filming their first sequences.28


On March 22, 1895, The Lumière brothers screened their first film, La Sortie des Usines Lumière (Leaving the Lumière Factory), to members of the Sociètè d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale in Paris.29  This event is known to many as the first true motion picture and potentially the first one projected to an audience, on a larger scale.  This film along with several others by the Lumière brothers would be shown to audiences in Paris on December 28th, 1895.

La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière (1895)

The scene they captured was astonishing for many reasons.  It introduced many to moving pictures, depicted a scene that was longer than a few seconds, and made a statement about the productivity and morale of their factory.  The Lumière brothers would continue to be a colossal influence on the industry, worldwide.


Additional major players in 1895 were the Skladanowsky brothers and their invention, the Bioscop.  This projection device used celluloid films with metal-reinfored perforations.28  The Skladanowsky brothers used their movie projector to display the first moving picture show to a paying audience on November 1, 1895.28  This would spark some competition between them and the Lumière brothers.28

Max Skladanowsky mit Bioskop / Foto 1933

So far we have covered the technology that led up to and helped shape the first films.  We have even covered several films that are typically considered to be the first.  While the films above have met the definitions of a film, I find it important to continue past the ultra-short films of the early 1890’s to a couple feature length films.  There are four noteworthy films that I would like to touch on, The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, A Trip to the Moon, The Great Train Robbery, and The Story of the Kelly Gang.  While there are many films between 1895 and 1906, I think that the major developments can be seen by covering these four.  I am not going to go too in depth on them, but they should be included in the discussion of the first films.

The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897)

The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight is the first feature length film and marks a major point in the taping of sporting events.  This film is a boxing documentary film covering a title fight in 1897.  The film was directed by Enoch J. Rector and took place in Carson City, Nevada.  The runtime on this film is over 60 minutes and covered 14 rounds.  Film had now surpassed the stage of filming simple actions and began to take on a new form.  Capturing live events and showing them to an audience would become a major aspect of the entertainment industry.  I wonder how many people at the time would believe that this would become a multi-billion dollar industry in the following century.  This is not just the beginning of the film industry, but the beginning of a worldwide shift in entertainment.

Le Voyage Dans la Lun (1902)

Georges Méliès made several films from 1896 to 1933, but the most influential one was Le Voyage Dans la Lun (A Trip to the Moon) from 1902.  The fictitious nature of the content is novel on its own, but on top of that it is a science fiction.  Méliès combined the tricks of the stage with many film tricks he had learned in the years preceding this film.  It culminates into a much different spectacle than viewers had access to when compared to the several second to several minutes long short films that were prevalent at the time, or the filmed boxing matches.  Le Voyage Dans la Lun brought escapism to the medium in a big way, something that drives the film industry to this day.

Great Train Robbery (1903)

Edwin S. Porter’s Great Train Robbery combined many techniques of the era to create one of the first action and western films.  The film is certainly dated by today’s standards, however the decision to be off set gives the film a more engaging feel than other contemporary films.  The western theme and style are clearly influencial on films to come.  You can even see Scorsese pay homage to this film through his ending in Goodfellas.  Much like the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight, America has no idea where the developments of these films will take art, society, and technology in the decades and century to come.

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

The Story of the Kelly Gang makes this list because it is the first dramatic feature film to have a true story arc and require multiple reels.  With an original runtime of over an hour this is likely the first narrative feature film.  Originating in Australia, the film would go on to be an international hit by 1909.30  In the years to come there would soon be much longer films, but this film stands out as the first to dedicate the resources to create a full story on film.

The birth of the film industry required several decades of innovation and creativity.  The technological advancements and ingenuity that went into creating these first movies continues today.  With the growth we see year after year in terms of creative and engaging storylines, technological advancements, powerful documentation, and seemingly endless forms of entertainment through digital media, it is interesting to see where all of this originates.  The need to advance the film industry and the technology around it will never cease.  All advancements will certainly not stand the test of time, however those willing to be experimental and novel in an age that has “done it all” will be the saving grace of film as a meaningful art form.

1 –

2 –

3 – Excerps taken from an english translation of  Charles Patin’s, Quatre Relations historiques par Charles Patin, médicin de Paris

4 –

5 –

6 –

7 – XI. On the properties of the Dædaleum, a new instrument of optical illusion. Philosophical Magazine Vol. 4 , Iss. 19,1834

8 –

9 – David Robinson, Stephen Herbert & Richard Crangle, Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern p.208

10 –

11 – Lincoln, William E., U.S. Patent 64,117, 1867.

12 – “A number of Milton Bradley strips, and a photograph of their zoetrope, may be seen here:” –

13 –

14 – Hannavy, John (Ed.). (2007). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 1193.

15 –

16 – Muybridge, Eadweard. The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, Illustrated with the Zoopraxiscope; 1882; W.M.Clowes and Sons, London.

17 – Gordon, Sarah. Indecent Exposures: Eadweard Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion”. New Haven, Conn./London: Yale University Press, 2015.

18 – Nash, Jay Robert. Among the Missing: An Anecdotal History of Missing Persons from 1800 to the Present. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.

19 – Prince, Louis Le. FR Patent No. 188,089. 1888.


21 – Hannavy, John (Ed.). (2007). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. Abingdon, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 837.

22 – Gaudreault, Andre & Tom Gunning. (2009). Introduction.  Gaudreault, Andre (Ed.), American Cinema 1890-1909: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 9.

23 – Casinghino, Carl. Moving Images: Making Movies, Understanding Media. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2010. 47.

24 – Bendazzi, Giannalberto.  Animation: A World History: Volume I: Foundations – The Golden Age. Waltham, MA: Focal Press, 2015. 17.

25 – Braun, Marta. Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 191

26 – Clee, Paul. Before Hollywood: From Shadow Play to the Silver Screen. New York, New York : Clarion Books, 2005. 131

27 – Musser, Charles. th Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, Volume 1. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1994. 104

28 – Legrand, Catherine, Karney, Robyn, Chronicle of the Cinema. New York, New York: Dorling Kindersley Publishing, 1995.

29 – Gaudreault, Andre & Tom Gunning. (2009). Introduction.  Gaudreault, Andre (Ed.), American Cinema 1890-1909: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 4.

30 – Reade, Eric.  The Australian Screen.  Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1975. 28-30.

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