The Film 100: W.K. Laurie Dickson, no. 1


‘Dickson Greeting:’ W.K. Laurie Dickson, waves, perhaps first to his boss witnessing his employee’s handiwork, and then subsequently to Edison Laboratory visitors who were given special access to this Edison-Dickson achievement.

Born: March 16, 1860, Château St. Buc, Minihic-sur-Ranse, France
Died: September 28, 1935, Twickenham, Middlesex, England

Legend has long established him as the father of motion pictures.
—Thomas Bohn

Had the future of motion pictures been left in the hands of Thomas Alva Edison, there would be no Hollywood, no buttered popcorn, and no Star Wars. Edison was reluctant to commit his staff to developing moving images; he thought their only real audience, small children, would tire of them quickly. To turn Edison around, it took the persistent personality of William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, an engineer of Scottish descent with a rare devotion to photography. Working deep within the shadow of America’s icon of ingenuity, Dickson advanced each of the critical processes that would show the world the wonder of movies, inadvertently perpetuating the myth of Edison as their lone inventor. Years later, while still alive, Laurie Dickson would be recognized by his contemporaries as the true father of film, and eventually historians would justly record his accomplishments as the most significant work of any single man in the fledgling years of the motion picture industry.

The Film 100
1. W.K. Laurie Dickson
2  Edwin S. Porter
3. Charlie Chaplin
4. Mary Pickford
5. Orson Welles
6. Alfred Hitchcock
7. Walt Disney
8. D.W. Griffith
9. Will Hays
10 Thomas Edison
11. John Wayne
12. J.R. Bray
13. Billy Bitzer
14. Jesse Lasky
15. George Eastman
16. Sergei Eisenstein
17. André Bazin
18. Irving Thalberg
19. Thomas Ince
20. Marlon Brando
21. Louis B. Mayer
22. Greta Garbo
23. Robert Flaherty
24. Lon Chaney
25. Anita Loos
26. George Méliès
27. Adolph Zukor
28. John Gilbert
29. Max Fleischer
30. John Ford
31. William Fox
32. George Lucas
33. Linwood Gale Dunn
34. Eadweard Muybridge
35. Katharine Hepburn
36. Winsor McCay
37. Stanley Kubrick
38. Buster Keaton
39. James Agee
40. Fritz Lang
41. Marcus Loew
42. Cedric Gibbons
43. James Cagney
44. Ben Hecht
45. Ingmar Bergman
46. Humphrey Bogart
47. Leon Schlesinger
48. Louella Parsons
49. Roger Corman
50. Edith Head
51. Bernard Herrmann
52. Gary Cooper
53. Mike Todd
54. Ernst Lubitsch
55. Sidney Poitier
56. Saul Bass
57. Billy Wilder
58. Bette Davis
59. Erich von Stroheim
60. Max Factor
61. Auguste and Louis Lumière
62. Woody Allen
63. Clark Gable
64. David O. Selznick
65. Gregg Toland
66. Lillian Gish
67. William Cameron Menzies
68. Lucille Ball
69. Samuel Rothafel
70. Akira Kurosawa
71. Marilyn Monroe
72. Vittorio De Sica
73. Natalie Kalmus
74. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
75. Willis O’Brien
76. Shirley Temple
77. Yakima Canutt
78. Sam Peckinpah
79. Jackie Coogan
80. Federico Fellini
81. Leni Riefenstahl
82. Steven Spielberg
83. Sam Warner
84. Jean-Luc Godard
85. Robert De Niro
86. Fred Astaire
87. Francis Ford Coppola
88. Ted Turner
89. Clint Eastwood
90. Dalton Trumbo
91. Dennis Hopper
92. Richard Hollingshead
93. Melvin Van Peebles
94. John Chambers
95. Mack Sennett
96. Martin Scorsese
97. Karl Struss
98. Busby Berkeley
99. John Hubley
100. John Cassavetes

Like many London schoolboys in the 1870s, Laurie Dickson had learned of the legendary achievements of the “Wizard of Menlo Park” through newspapers and comic books. By age nineteen, Dickson was determined to make his way to America and become an inventor. He sent a telegram to Edison in 1881, asking for work in the famous laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. Edison’s curt reply was an explicit no, but in 1883, Dickson gathered the fare for an ocean liner and came to the States anyway. With experience in amateur photography, Dickson appealed to Edison by offering to take pictures of the Edison family, and by demonstrating an aptitude for the mechanics of the camera, he talked himself into an inconspicuous place among the many assistants in Edison’s lab. Then, Dickson waited for an opportunity.

In 1888, the scientific community was giving considerable attention to the experiments of photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Recalling the young assistant’s fervor for the hobby, Edison called or Dickson and asked him to examine the progress of Muybridge and other various rival inventors who were recording motion. It was to be an information-gathering assignment only, conducted outside of Dickson’s daily responsibilities. Edison made clear that his interest was not in recording movement; he simply wished to apply the optical illusions he had seen in his children’s magic lanterns and optical toys to the phonograph, simultaneously putting pictures together with sound.


Illustration by Zeke Zielinski

Dickson took to the task with characteristic zeal and explored every facet of the Muybridge technique. Then, disobeying the directions given him, he spent the next few months searching the world for drawings, pictures and documents detailing all devices that claimed to make photographs move. Once he felt that the concept of recording images in a single device was viable, he urged his employer to dedicate staff and funding for further research. Edison consented to allow Dickson to tinker, still with a view to adapting some of the principles to the phonograph.

Dickson immediately created several key alliances that would help him proceed. Foremost among theses was his relationship with George Eastman’s company, which supplied him with a steady stock of photographic supplies, particularly paper film. Dickson first attempted to attach photographic images to the cylinder of a phonograph by wrapping paper sheets around it. Initially, he used a telescope instead of a lens to look down and view the jittery images rolling under his nose. Building a camera and viewing instrument based on the phonograph proved problematic. First of all, the movement of passing photos was indistinguishable. What was needed was a method to make each still frame stop for a split second, and the phonograph’s cylinder could not be made to perform that way. Another concern was the opacity of the paper film. Dickson had read of a product called celluloid, developed by John Carbutt. Carbutt’s transparent sheets were being advertised as a replacement for plate glass negatives. Dickson ordered a supply and again tried rolling pieces of the malleable material around a drum, but the celluloid was still too rigid.

Dickson then sought out Hannibal Goodwin, an Episcopalian minister who had perfected a way of applying photographic emulsion to a roll of film. Suddenly, Dickson saw a ray of hope: a more flexible roll of celluloid film, combined with the emulsion process, could become an essential ingredient to commercial success. Befriending Goodwin and Carbutt, Dickson coerced them into relinquishing their patents to the Edison company. Edison’s reputation for stealing the ideas of others was firmly rooted by this time, but Dickson assured both men that the prestige and resources of the West Orange lab would help them properly protect and profit from their hard work.

His persuasiveness would have a lasting impact on the future of film in several ways. Immediately, the Edison company received an overwhelming advantage in controlling the technologies required to create images on filmstrips. Furthermore, Dickson’s close association with the Eastman company provided it with a substantial lead in manufacturing motion picture film stock; Dickson even traveled to Rochester, New York, to guide Eastman employees through the requirements for coating the celluloid strips with photosensitive emulsion, instructing them to make the rolls 35mm wide and in lengths of roughly 15 meters. And though Carbutt and Goodwin were generously rewarded, their willingness to share their patents would later hurt their chances to receive credit for the discovery of these processes, and ultimately gave Edison legal ownership of film patents for nearly a decade.

By November of 1889, the tenacious Dickson had devised a crude camera to record images on the translucent strips and filmed his first trial, a five-second wonder featuring the movement of fellow assistant Fred Ott. Already, some conventions were being set: the film was 35mm stock from Eastman, it was advanced by sprockets, and the illumination was provided by an electric bulb.

Dickson presented the short film to Edison, calling the peephole machine for viewing them a Kinetoscope. The Kinetoscope was simple; a filmstrip of several images was passed in front of an illuminated lens and behind a spinning wheel. The momentary view gave customers a brief glance at each of forty-six pictures in the course of one second.  An optical effect gave the illusion of lifelike motion. Edison immediately relieved Dickson of all other assignments to concentrate fully on the development of motion pictures and put a team of assistants under his supervision. By 1891, Dickson was in complete control of all aspects of Edison’s motion picture department.

With the public introduction of the Kinetoscope in October of 1892, the era of the nickelodeon was on. Despite the sensational business the much-hyped Kinetoscope viewers were doing, Dickson knew that they were already being improved upon by inventors abroad. He urged Edison to consider a projection device, but the Wizard was skeptical of the long-term success of the curious films. He saw no need for exhibiting to large groups of people and asked Dickson to cancel further experiments. Edison’s shortsighted belief was that the number of images that were interesting enough to warrant capture on film was somehow limited and that, when projected to large audiences in theaters across the country, the novelty—and profits—would quickly fade. He was interested in the mass production of Kinetoscopes, not in the mass production of films.

But while Edison was vacationing in Europe in 1895, Dickson constructed a new camera that tipped the scales at nearly two thousand pounds and had to be housed in a tar-paper shack, christened the “Black Maria,” on the grounds of the Menlo Park facility. It was the first motion picture stage. He began recording a variety of films about one minute long, including an early attempt with sound. The experimental tomfoolery created by Dickson over four days, with help from several assistants, was later collected in Monkeyshines; the presentation included the famous record of a Fred Ott sneeze that forever made him a fixture in film history. Dickson himself can be spotted in many of these scenes, dancing and playing the violin. Although crude, these films illustrated how a solitary perspective could be used to create many illusions.

Sparked by news that clever French inventors, the Lumière brothers, had previewed a projection device, Dickson once again encouraged an inventor to give up his patents. Thomas Armat had employed intermittent film movement with a rotating arm on a projector, and Dickson successfully convinced him to allow the design to become an Edison property. But the acquisition of Armat’s technology would turn out to be the last by Dickson on Edison’s behalf. Upon returning from Europe, Edison learned that Dickson had secured the Armat innovations, put them together with existing processes and was pursuing projection. He and Dickson argued, and despite eight years of collaboration, they decided to part ways.

Several months after Dickson’s departure in 1895, Edison displayed a projection system called Vitascope, a bulky but effective camera-and-projector system that sparked a revolution and rendered the Kinetoscope obsolete. Dickson immediately founded his own company and adapted his ideas for a projection system called the Mutoscope, carefully avoiding litigation by working around technologies that might infringe on the existing patents held by Edison. Unveiled in 1895, the system rivaled Edison’s with improved image quality and film subjects that audiences found more entertaining. Throughout parlors on the East Coast, Dickson’s Mutoscope was the most fierce competition to the Vitascope, but Dickson lacked the proper sales force to compete with Edison.

Dickson’s studio, the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, known simply as “Biograph,” became the model for early studios. Only the second motion picture production formed in the United States, Biograph became a major producer of features and a springboard for the careers of dozens of film luminaries, including D.W. Griffith, Edwin S. Porter, Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Mary Pickford, Florence Lawrence, Lillian Gish, Wallace Reid and Harry Carey. The studio’s first cameraman was Billy Bitzer, the legendary pioneer who took Dickson’s equipment to the streets and quickly mastered early shooting techniques. The first Biograph film released, Empire State Express (1896), was not important artistically but became a solid success for the fledgling studio and quickly legitimized the “business” of film production. Laurie Dickson soon sold a portion of his interest in Biograph and retired from the film industry. Ironically, Thomas Edison would purchase the Biograph studio in 1913 and once again overshadow the memory of Dickson’s accomplishments; history books often record the company as “Edison’s Biograph.”

Laurie Dickson proudly returned to his mother in England in 1897. By then, his profound influence on motion pictures was firmly rooted. No single man was more persistent and pragmatic in the pursuit of a working system for the capture and projection of moving images. Dickson brought together all of the necessary technologies from disparate inventors, secure important relationships with Eastman and other materials manufacturers and managed to carry on with his vision in spite of a lukewarm marketplace and a reluctant boss. Under his passionate guidance, an entire industry was given life, nurtured to strength, and seen through to maturity. His collective achievements add up to nothing less than the bare essentials of moviemaking—the film, the camera, the projector and the studio.

To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.

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