The Dawn of Commercial Cinema

History Hit

2 mins

28 Dec 2017

On 28 December 1895 the Lumière brothers, pioneers of modern film, broadcast motion pictures to a paying audience for the first time in history. As a result, this date has forever been associated with the dawn of the cinematic age, and the immense change that this technology has brought into our lives.

These Frenchmen, August and Louis, did not invent moving film but took it to a level where it could be used as a means of popular entertainment for the first time.

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Film finding its feet

Prolific American inventor Thomas Edison had already developed a “Kinetoscope” for viewing moving pictures, but the problem with this “peep-show” device was that it could only be looked into by one person at a time.

Thomas Edison in 1922.

The Lumières had been in the burgeoning photographic business since the early 188os, but when they inherited it upon the retirement of their father they decided to take it into a new and ambitious direction.

In their small factory in Lyon they developed numerous technologies essential for a working film camera, most importantly film perforations, the carefully punched holes on the side of black physical film. In 1892 a French writer called Léon Bouly stumbled across the idea and preliminary designs for what he called a “Cinematograph.”

The main difference between this and Edison’s machine was that it also contained a projector, allowing numerous people to view a moving film at a time. Short on money and real technical know-how, however, Bouly sold his rights to the name and design to the Lumières, who then set about making his dream into a reality.

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Vision of the Lumières

In February 1893 the brothers successfully patented their own vastly improved version of the Cinematograph, and managed to take their first moving picture, Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon, showed workers leaving their factory, within two years.

After a successful public screening of the film in the world’s first cinema in the south of France, they realised that there were huge profits to be made by going into payed screenings.

After a successful advertising campaign the world’s first commerical screening took place in the Grand Café Boulevard des Capuchines in Paris, where the Lumières showcased their first ten films to an admiring audience.

Each film was around 17 meters long, lasted less than a minute and had to be hand-cranked through a projector, but their reception was one of astonished delight. At the great Paris Exhibition of 1900 the cinematograph was one of the main attractions, and the brothers took their invention all over the world, attracting fascinated crowds.

Postcard of the Paris Exhibition (or L’Exposition Universelle), 1900. (Credit: Paris-16).

The age of cinema had begun, and by 1906 feature films of an hour long were possible as the technology’s potential exploded into life.

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