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Projectors and the Vitascope (1895-1896)

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Advertisement for the Vitascope motion picture projector

Advertisement for the Vitascope motion picture projector, marketed by the Edison Manufacturing Company even though it was invented by Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins.

Edison was slow to develop a projection system (the Vitascope was a film projection system) at this time, since the single-user Kinetoscopes were very profitable. However, films projected for large audiences could generate more profits since less machines were needed in proportion to the number of viewers. Thus, others sought to develop their own projection systems.

One inventor who led the way was Woodville Latham who, with his sons, created the Eidoloscope projector which was presented publicly in April 1895. Dickson apparently advised the Lathams on their machine, offering technical knowledge, a situation which led to Dickson leaving Edison's employment on April 2, 1895.

Dickson formed the American Mutoscope Company in December of 1895 with partners Herman Casler, Henry Norton Marvin and Elias Koopman. The company, which eventually came to be known as the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, soon became a major competitor to the Edison Company.

During the same period, C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat developed a motion picture projection device which they called the Phantoscope. It was publicly demonstrated in Atlanta in September 1895 at the Cotton States Exposition. Soon after, the two parted ways, with each claiming sole credit for the invention.

Armat showed the Phantoscope to Raff and Gammon, owners of the Kinetoscope Company, who recognized its potential to secure profits in the face of declining kinetoscope business. They negotiated with Armat to purchase rights to the Phantoscope and approached Edison for his approval. The Edison Manufacturing Company agreed to manufacture the machine and to produce films for it, but on the condition it be advertised as a new Edison invention named the Vitascope.

The Vitascope's first theatrical exhibition was on April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City. Other competitors soon displayed their own projection systems in American theaters, including the re-engineered Eidoloscope, which copied Vitascope innovations; the Lumière Cinématographe, which had already debuted in Europe in 1895; Birt Acres' Kineopticon; and the Biograph which was marketed by the American Mutoscope Company. The Vitascope, along with many of the competing projectors, became a popular attraction in variety and vaudeville theaters in major cities across the United States. Motion pictures soon became starring attractions on the vaudeville bill. Exhibitors could choose the films they wanted from the Edison inventory and sequence them in whatever order they wished.

The Edison Company developed its own projector known as the Projectoscope or Projecting Kinetoscope in November 1896, and abandoned marketing the Vitascope.

Photo Library of Congress, Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division
 
 

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