On this day, 117 years ago, the first movie projector designed and built in the United States was showcased by Woodville Latham and his sons, Otway and Gray, in a private exhibition. Read about this cinematography milestone in this installment of Today in History.
Since Thomas Edison unveiled his Kinetoscope in 1891, it became the most prevalent motion picture device in the United States in the succeeding years. However, viewers could only watch the films one at a time in a peep-show box, not projected for an audience. Brothers Grey and Otway Latham, who founded a company that filmed and exhibited footages of boxing matches through their Kinetoscope parlor, saw this as a problem. “We were unable to accommodate the crowds we had, as only one at a time could view the pictures exhibited by the Kinetoscope,” the brothers recalled, as related by Charles Musser in The Emergence of Cinema.
Challenged by this problem, the brothers came up with an idea: why not create a device that could project images on a screen for larger audiences? To solve this, they enlisted the help of their father, Woodville Latham, a chemistry professor; and William Kennedy Dickinson, an assistant of Edison who had a major part in the development of the first motion picture camera.
They faced two major problems. First, how to build a camera that could film a boxing match in full using just one strip of film; and second, how to build a projector to show their footages on a big screen.
According to cinematography historians, the first problem was particularly difficult because Edison’s kinetograph cameras often tore the film perforations if the film was longer than 100 feet. This setback occurred because the spool that fed film into the kinetograph, and the spool that took it, were both in constant motion. The film at the camera’s film gate, meanwhile, needs to pause for a split-second, in order for the shutter to expose every frame to a light source. This was responsible for the jerky movement that greatly strained the film, and the lengthier the film, the stronger the strain.
Nevertheless, the Lathams successfully created the Pantopticon (later renamed Eidoloscope), which was unveiled in a private exhibition on April 21, 1895. According to a New York Times report published the next day, the device combined the kinetoscope and stereopticon, and had the same effect as the kinetoscope, only that the images are bigger and are projected for a large audience.