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This startup story of 'disruption' is more than 120 years old

The original Netflix. Picture: US Gov/Wikimedia Commons

William Kennedy Dickson died on this day 80 years ago.

A Scottish inventor born in France, Dickson’s greatest achievement was to be known as the man who developed a motion picture camera for Thomas Edison. It’s alleged that he and Edison began working on a concept after the pair attended a demonstration by photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge of his “zoopraxiscope” on February 25, 1888.

Muybridge met with them a couple of days later to discuss how his device – which used a glass disc to project sequential images – might be married to Edison’s phonograph to create motion pictures with sound. But it all went quiet for Muybridge soon after, and what followed is a fascinating example of how quickly not only technology moves once “disruption” is in effect but also a reminder of how those with entrepreneurial spirit have always found a way to keep pace with it.

Here’s how it went down:

October, 1888 – Patent

Edison files a claim with the US Patent Office for a device that would do “for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear”.

May, 1891 – Prototype

Dickson, an employee of Edison’s, went to work on it and on May 20, 1891, the first demonstration of the technology took place at a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Here’s how the New York Sun reported it:

In the top of the box was a hole perhaps an inch in diameter. As they looked through the hole they saw the picture of a man. It was a most marvelous picture. It bowed and smiled and waved its hands and took off its hat with the most perfect naturalness and grace. Every motion was perfect….

With it, America’s movie culture was born. Dickson, the man in the “marvelous picture”, might legitimately lay claim to being the first movie star.

But that first demonstration was simply of a prototype.

August, 1891 – More patents

Edison quickly filed the first few patents, stating he was able to take “as many as forty-six photographs per second”, but noting 30 or lower was “sufficient” for some subjects.

May, 1892 – Monetisation

One of the first tweaks, completed within months of the successful demonstration, was to add a coin slot to the mechanism.

It took nearly two years for the intellectual property to be locked away before the first public demonstration was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.

May, 1893 – Going public

It was supposed to have debuted with a grand exhibition of 25 machines at the Chicago World’s Fair, but Dickon had suffered a nervous breakdown that year and had been out of action for some 80 days while the Kinetoscopes were to have been built.

In the two years since the Kinetoscope prototoype’s unveiling, Edison had already moved on to building a production studio, dubbed “the Black Maria”. You might know it these days as “content”.

Dickson noted Black Maria was “productive of the happiest effects in the films”. The film chosen for show at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences was “Blacksmith Scene”:

The men in the film aren’t blacksmiths. They’re believed to be the first actors caught on film and it all happened at Black Maria.

The patents are locked in. A coin-operated device is built into the design. A studio is built and actors hired to produce marvellous works, even before the public has seen the Kinetoscope in action.

January, 1894 – Copyrights and PR

Now come the copyrights. In January 1894, a five-second film was shot at Black Maria and the images were to be used in an issue of Harper’s magazine.

The film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze, could easily find a popular spot on a social network somewhere today:

It is, literally, the world’s first viral, and if you’d tried to cash in on it, you would have been met with the world’s first copyright infringment pertaining to a motion picture.

April, 1894 – VCs and franchise

In New York City at 1155 Broadway, on the corner of 27th Street, the world’s first commercial movie house opened. Ten Kinetoscopes were lined up, each showing a different movie available to view.

You could pay 25 cents to see movies on one row of five machines, or 50 cents to see all of them. The machines came from the Kinetoscope Company, a firm supported by several investors and Edison’s former business chief, which had a contract to buy Kinetoscopes off Edison for somewhere between $200 and $250 each.

The films cost $10 each. Edison’s company made more than $85,000 from this arrangement in the first 11 months – about $2.5 million in today’s terms.

June, 1894 – Pay-to-play sport and ‘value-adding’

The Kinetoscope Exhibition Company jumps onto the bandwagon. It wants to show prizefighting (boxing) but there’s a problem – negative lengths meant the Kinetoscope could only show 20 seconds of continuous 40 frames per second motion. They could cut it back to 16fps, but it’s not going to be good enough for boxing.

They film 750 feet of fighting between boxers Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing at the Black Maria – six rounds abbreviated to one-minute each, so they could be shot at a manageable 30fps.

The Kinetoscope Exhibition Company sell the fight at its own New York parlour across six machines, for a dime a round. (The knockdown occurred in the final round.) Other exhibitors could buy the fight for $22.50, but the disruptive magic of GIFs means we can show you a little bit now for free:

Due to its success, the KEC sign heavyweight James J. Corbett for a series of fights. In at least one of the fights, the outcome was fixed. Corbett’s contract makes him the first ever movie star and he’s not allowed to appear for any other Kinetoscope production company. He’s The Rock, circa 1894.

July, 1894 – Porn, censorhip and cats

A movie of Spanish dancer Carmencita which had been shot at Black Maria in March goes on show in the New Jersey resort town Asbury Park. State senator, town founder and noted Methodist James A. Bradley catches the flick and a glimpse of Carmencita’s ankles and lace:

He complains to the town’s mayor and the movie is pulled and replaced with… “Boxing Cats”.

A month later, the Pacific Society for the Suppression of Vice force the arrest of a San Francisco Kinetoscope operator believed to be showing “indecent” films in public.

A six-year evolution

And there it is. Just under six years from concept to censorship, with all the commercialisation, copyright and contract negotiations in between you’d expect from any modern day startup trying to lock its product down and start raking in some ROI.

So on the 80th anniversary of the death of William Kennedy Dickson, it’s a good time to remember that technology may change beyond anything you’ll imagine, but the business of staying in business is an age-old model still waiting to be disrupted.

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