Loop Frees an Industry
April 21, 1895: First US Movie Projector Demonstrated
On this day in 1895 Woodville Latham and his sons Otway and Grey, demonstrate their “Panopticon”, the first movie projector developed in the United states.
“Pantopticon Rivals the Kinetoscope” (which was Edison’s current film technology) read the small report in the New York Times on April 22, 1895. “Prof. Woodville Latham yesterday gave a private exhibition of the workings of what he calls a Panopticon, which is a combination of the kinetoscope and stereopticon, at 35 Frankfort Street. The effect is precisely like that of a kinetoscope, only that the pictures are much larger, and can be seen by a large number of people assembled in the darkened room.”
The Latham Loop – The Film Industry is Free at Last
This small discovery changed the film industry in a big way. Industry magazine, American Cinematographer, ranks the “Latham Loop” as one of the most influential technical developments of the 20th Century, and writes that, “For the filmmakers of the time, it was as big a breakthrough as anything that has happened since.”
As it happened the Latham boys hooked up with a buddy, Enoch Rector, who’d just completed his engineering degree. They wanted to show him the town and ended up at a Kinetoscope parlor which was all the rage. For a quarter you could look through a peep hole and see a 20 second “living picture”. People were lined up to get a spot at one of the ten machines available.
With the enthusiasm and daring of youth the boys thought, “what if we could film an entire prize fight (which people of the times were crazy about), we’d make a fortune.”
They hired a couple of popular boxers, Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing, both contenders for the lightweight crown, and rented out Edison’s “Black Maria” studio to film the event.
The result… huge crowds lined up in the streets to view the event that sometimes had to be controlled by the police. According to Charles Musser in his book “The Emergence of Cinema”, Grey and Otway later recalled, “We were unable to accommodate the crowds we had, as only one at a time could view the pictures exhibited by the Kinetoscope, and my father suggested making a machine that would enlarge pictures of this character so that more than one could view them at the same time.”
Edison was convinced that moving pictures were a passing novelty and decided to ignore projection and make a quick profit from his Kinetoscopes. But the Lathams felt there was big money to be made with projected moving images.
Fortuitously, W.K.L. Dickson, Edison’s assistant who was primarily responsible for developing the first motion picture camera, had become dissatisfied with his situation at the Edison Laboratory and agreed to secretly help the Lathams with their project.
The projectors of the time couldn’t handle much more than 20 seconds of film because any longer and the projector would tear the film. The feed reel and take up reel were in constant motion and moving at different speeds. The film had to pause for a fraction of a second in front of a gate that exposed the frame to the projector bulb.
After a great deal of experimentation Woodlville, Dickson and another disgruntled Edison employee, Eugene Lauste, created a loop of film in the film’s path that could absorb the effects of the intermittent movement. Suddenly and dramatically the primary limitation of motion pictures disappeared.
On June 1st, 1895, Woodville Latham applied for a patent for a “Projecting-Kinetoscope”. The “Latham Loop” had been officially registered, and it is a discovery that continues to be used in every motion picture film camera and projector to this day.