This is a repost of a past article. The original publishing date was February 25th, 2019.
Written by: Tyler DeWacht
We tend to take a lot of things for granted today, such as television and video games. We can instantly catch the newest episode of our favorite series no matter where we are, a detailed color image takes less than a second to capture, and we can watch a full-length movie on anything from the inside of a small metal rectangle to the surface of a gargantuan multi-story house-sized sheet of fabric. 100 years ago, cameras were only just starting to become popular, movies were still largely experimental, and home televisions didn’t exist yet. Even 200 years ago, most of this would seem absurd to the average person. Why don’t we take a look back then and see how we got to where we are today?
Before the camera, we were limited to drawings, paintings, and sculptures. If you wanted a model image of yourself, you would have to sit still for hours, days, or even several years (as was the case with the Mona Lisa painting) for someone else to painstakingly design a passing likeness of you. There exists an optical phenomenon in which objects viewed through a pinhole flip upside down, and if viewed from within a dark room, this effect is even more apparent. Others before had noticed this, but the first person to seriously study this optical illusion was Leonardo da Vinci (hence the Mona Lisa example). Sketching the image as it appeared on the walls, he saw great potential for art in this method, and he made many illustrations detailing his observations, learning about the inner workings of the eye in the process. This technique, the camera obscura, was effectively the first camera prototype.
As we fast-forward to 1816, we find Nicéphore and Claude Niépce. Having invented one of the first internal combustion engines 10 years prior, the brothers went their separate ways. While Claude slowly spiralled into delirium as he squandered all his money trying to profit off the Pyréolophore engine, Nicéphore went down a different avenue by exploring photography. He wanted to make a permanent image, one that wouldn’t fade over time. After much trial and error involving the camera obscura with different chemical compounds and a partnership with theatre designer Louis Daguerre, he finally managed after 12 years to create his first black and white photograph. After Nicéphore’s unexpected death in 1833, Louis continued this line of work and created the Daguerreotype, the first publicly-available style of photography. It quickly took off in popularity, and he was praised for his work. He gave the technical knowledge to the French government in exchange for a lifetime pension both for himself and for Nicéphore’s son Isidore. From there, the instructions were released worldwide as a free gift to everyone, and the camera rapidly developed into something much greater.
While this was happening in France, a British man named John Ayrton Paris was designing a new toy: the thaumatrope. With a set of revolving discs spinning around, this would create the illusion of a moving image. He wasn’t the first to play with the idea, but he was the first to commercialize it with his friend William H. Fitton’s permission. At least, that’s one side of the story. The other side says Paris stole the idea from his friend John Herschel during a demonstration of the idea with a coin. Is this allegation true? We may never know, but the thaumatrope set in motion the idea of moving images, which would lead to the development of film.
There were a lot of people in on the race to develop working film, too many to list each individual attempt. Instead, let’s roll ahead to the first known film: the Roundhay Garden Scene, recorded by Louis Le Prince in 1888 using a new camera design. He was going to patent this technology after he settled some matters in Paris, but for some reason, he never made it to Paris. He just vanished off his train without a trace, and nobody knows exactly what happened to him. Though suicide can’t be ruled out, the most likely theory is that he was taken out by one of his competitors.
You may recognize one of the prime suspects: Thomas Edison. In the race to capitalize film, he invented the kinetoscope, which popularized film rolls. Though he was known as a great inventor, he was also a ruthless businessman who was merciless against his rivals. Louis’ son Adolphe was found shot dead following him testifying his father’s invention in court against Edison. Is this coincidence, or evidence of something more? Whatever the case may be, it was his kinetoscope that eventually became the prevalent design which would shape future models.
Following this was the advent of sound in film. Making pictures move is one thing, but how do you get sound to accompany the pictures? The easiest answer is to play audio in tandem with the visuals, but this created synchronization problems. Edison experimented with this idea, but didn’t have much success with it. It was German physicist Ernst Ruhmer who, while researching early wireless telephone technology, figured a similar technique could be used to record sound in the film strip through electric conversion. His experimentation culminated in the photographophone, which converted sound waves into electricity on his patented selenium cells that then converted the electricity into light through a chemical reaction. It was a bit complicated, not to mention expensive, but it got the job done. Thankfully, more practical methods were found, the first financially successful example being the Vitaphone courtesy of the Warner Brothers.
Moving pictures with sound is great and all, but what about color? How did we get the crisp colors we see today, as opposed to various shades of gray? That’s where Technicolor comes into play. Using color filters simultaneously against the film frames, you could approximate the appropriate colors on-screen. For the sake of brevity, this is a rather simplified explanation. This process works with animation as well as film, which was recognized by Walt Disney. Finding great commercial success with the release of the “Flowers and Trees” short in 1928, he copyrighted an advanced version of Technicolor, which set back other animation studios for a few years until they found other ways to work around it.
Hollywood Studios picked up on the potential of film as well, and the rest is history. I could get into the rest of it, but that would take up too much space, this is already a lengthy topic as is. I could drag this out further, but that wouldn’t be fun, so let’s do some rapidfire history:
Televisions were invented, now you can watch films from home! Some companies realized they could profit off this, and tv advertisements were born in 1941. Later came along a little thing called the internet in the late 80s, now you can watch movies on a computer! Pixar realized the potential of computers in animation, made Toy Story, and found great success with it. Smartphones became a thing in the 2000s, now you can find things from anywhere! You want to look up the camera obscura? You can do that from the comfort of your own home, or on the go!
This was a brief overlook on the imaging technology from the Renaissance to today. If you’re interested, I’d recommend you look into the matter further, I won’t be able to do it true justice in just this one article. That being said, whether you choose to further explore or not, I wish you the best of luck as you continue this semester, you can do it!