The Camera Technology That Turned Films Into Stories

John Wayne dressed as a cowboy directs the filming of "The Alamo" in 1960.

John Wayne directs during the filming of “The Alamo” in 1960

A modest invention that prevented celluloid from tearing helped make modern cinema. An Object Lesson.


In the late 19th century, filmmakers had a problem they couldn’t have anticipated: how to make a film that lasted more than a few seconds without tearing. In film’s earliest days, this had hardly been an issue. Film was a novelty, and brevity was part of the appeal. It offered spectacle, like glimpses of Annie Oakley shooting or prizefighters competing in the ring—sights people would never be able to see in person.

But after the initial shock wore off, the public wanted something more. They began to understand what it was film had to offer: The seeds of fiction were planted in these short, performed events.

Before film was art, it was machinery. It took years for film to get the kind of legal protection that the other, more prestigious arts enjoyed. In the early days, it was technology, protectable only by patent. As a result, film, as a product, was strange and vulnerable, subject to duping, sabotage, and all kinds of strange patent traps set by Thomas Edison to keep independent filmmakers from gaining power.

Edison hadn’t invented the technology behind the moving picture. In the 1880s, the photographer Edward Muybridge created a sequence of images that, if viewed together in rapid succession, simulated movement. The first functioning camera and projector likewise didn’t come from Edison, but the Lumière Brothers. Edison refined and commercialized their invention, turning film’s focus toward storytelling and away from documentary. He also thought globally. By the mid-1900s anyone with a camera could produce—or just copy—films. Distributing them was another matter. That, Edison knew, was where the money was.

* * *

Enter the Lathams—a father, Major Woodville (a Confederate) and his hard-living sons Otway and Gray. In their quest to film a boxing match and screen it for a paying audience, they invented the Latham Loop, a way of pulling film through the threading device of the camera gently enough not to tear the sprockets—and more importantly, a device that enabled the film to gently spool over from back to front, allowing for longer films. Their projector was called the Eidoloscope, and it had the instant advantage over Edison’s competing product.

From 1891 onward, Edison had tried to corner the new, lucrative market for films. By 1894, he turned to the Lathams, who had asked for financial help in creating a device allowing for longer pictures, with the aim of projecting filmed boxing matches for admission. In 1895, they were successful. In May of that year, as Dan Streible documents in his book Fight Pictures: Boxing and Early Cinema, the Lathams screened a fight between “Young Griffo” and Charles Barnett in New York City in a widescreen format.

The Lathams continued to screen spectacles for the public, until the money ran out. Edison’s protégé, W.K.L. Dickson, distanced himself from both the Lathams and Edison in 1895, just in time to form his own company. He’d call it Mutoscope, soon to be known as Biograph, the studio that would produce some of the most influential narrative films of the early century, among them Birth of a Nation in 1913.

Edison didn’t like competition. His nickelodeons, or “peep shows,” were all the rage in the early aughts, before the problems of screening films for large audiences had been fixed to anyone’s satisfaction. But when the competition started heating up, Edison turned to his patents to squeeze the market. He’d intimidated filmmakers out of competing against him in previous years, so much so that there were more French films on American screens from 1906 to 1909 than American ones.

Edison went further in 1908, by creating the Motion Picture Patents Company, or Film Trust. By joining forces with the other big studios of the day (Dickson’s Biograph excluded) he’d hoped to exert his power against burgeoning independent filmmakers by patenting every part of the film camera down to the sprocket holes. Independent filmmakers didn’t have much in the way of legal recourse against the Edison machine. The Sherman Antitrust Act had passed in 1890, before the earliest films had an audience. Copyright laws wouldn’t take motion pictures under protection until 1912.

But Edison had forgotten something: Dickson’s long-held grudge. Dickson side-swiped Edison, coming up against him with his ownership of the Latham Loop, which Edison, in his rush to power, had somehow forgotten about.

By 1908, the Loop was integral to any film projector and camera—as it remains today. It had been patented by 1902 by Woodville Latham, only to be then sold on the cheap to Ansco (Anthony and Scoville Co.) when the Lathams were running low on money. In 1908, Dickson and Biograph bought up the patent and used it to beat Edison and the MPPC at its own game.




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