History of Motion Pictures: From Nickelodeons to Talking Films


By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

Watching movies on our smartphones may seem like a sweeping change from the idea of viewing them in a magnificent theater. Not really! In fact watching films on a mobile phone is almost like returning to the single viewer display of motion pictures on the nickelodeon boxes of the 19th century. Read on to get an idea of the various important developments in the history of motion pictures from the early 19th century to the 1930s.

Sketch of Edison’s vitascope movie projector in operation in 1897.
Edison’s vitascope movie projector in operation, 1897. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Motion pictures had their beginnings in the 19th century, aided by several technological developments. These pictures have a long and complex history with a number of rapid innovations that reconfigured the medium of cinema again and again.

Learn more about Gutenberg’s Print Revolution.

Precursors to Motion Pictures

Motion pictures were the outcome of the human urge to observe, represent, and create—a desire represented by the cave paintings of early man to YouTube videos of present times. Johannes Vermeer, the famous Dutch period painter, used optical equipments, called camera obscura, to create precise and detailed paintings. This invention was a forerunner to the idea of photography. By the first half of the 19th century, chemical processes were being used to create and duplicate images that were projected on the screen. 

English-born American photographer, Eadweard Muybridge anticipated movies and cinemas in his famous work on motion studies. While working at Palo Alto, California, a former governor of California, Leland Stanford, challenged Muybridge to prove that a horse while galloping could become fully airborne or aloft. Thus, Muybridge worked for years to get the shutter speed and technique just right to photograph a running horse. In the process, he created the technology for motion pictures that finally helped him win his bet with the former governor.

The Birth of Motion Pictures

Photograph of a kinetoscope parlor, with many kinetoscopes placed side by side and men standing behind some of them.
A kinetoscope parlor exhibiting motion pictures in San Francisco. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

In France, the Lumière Brothers, Louis and Auguste, shot their first film. Though these films had a very short duration, the audience considered them nothing less than a marvel. They were screened to small audiences in Paris, but the brothers themselves did not foresee the medium’s potential.

In the United States, Thomas Edison created the kinetoscope around the same time. Edison also improvised on a projector invented by Thomas Armat and Charles Francis Jenkins, and called it the Vitascope. The first screening of a film with the Edison’s Vitascope was held at the Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, New York City in the April of 1896.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

From the Nickelodeons Rage to Collective Viewing

Throughout the country, and increasingly worldwide, these short films were watched by people individually. In so-called Kinetoscope parlors or nickelodeons, viewers actually stood over and craned into a kind of box. Inside these boxes, a film was running continuously, and the viewer who deposited some money would examine it through a magnifying glass. In 1908, there were more than eight thousand nickelodeons in the United States with millions of people watching them every day.

However, over time, audiences progressed from watching cinema individually through the magnifying glass to viewing cinema as a group or collectively. The collective watching brought in a bigger social change than the print revolution of Gutenberg.

Learn more about the invention of motion pictures.

Era of Silent Motion Pictures

The early theaters were lively, bustling places, with continuous showing of films. This revolutionary development of movies was global.

Because the films were silent at first, without spoken dialogue, they were uniquely accessible internationally. At the same time, it might also be said that cinema was developing a kind of language on the spot. Silent films had to create what amounted to a visual vocabulary that would be understood and accepted, and it was not identical to traditional theater on the stage. Several new techniques, such as use of close-ups in camera angles or ‘dissolves’ as a way of showing transitions between scenes, were used to improve the experience of watching films.

Yet, it would be unfair to label these films as completely silent. To begin with, these motion pictures were accompanied by the collective reactions of the audience’s ‘oooo’s’ and ‘aaaah’s’ or shrieks or laughs. In addition, live music was played and employees at the theater entertained the audience with sound for the special effects being screened. The music, however, was usually inappropriate. 

Recorded Sound in Motion Pictures

Photograph of Orchestra being conducted for The Wizard of Oz.
Herbert Stothart conducting the MGM Studio Orchestra for The Wizard of Oz. (Image: Library of Congress/Public domain)

After three and a half decades of silent films, the first motion pictures with sound started arriving. It was thought that these films with sound would not have the universal approach and international accessibility of the silent films. The initial skepticism that the whole business was unnatural and nothing that is unnatural will ever last long was soon given away to blockbuster films such as The Jazz Singer in 1927 and color cinemas such as Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz in the 1930s.

Learn more about the rise of social media.

Common Questions About the History of Motion Pictures

Q: What was the camera obscura used by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer?

The camera obscura or the ‘dark chamber’ used by Johannes Vermeer was an optical device that could trace and copy an image with perfect perspective and color. When light passed through a small hole in its wall, it projected an upside down image of a scene onto a screen. This device was an invention of the classical times before the era of motion pictures commenced.

Q: How did the makers of motion pictures get the feedback on public taste?

Nickelodeon managers stood close by and listened to the viewers to know which of the features in the motion pictures evoked most enthusiasm. They then would go out to order more of those. This was the kind of feedback loop in terms of public taste.

Q: What was the purpose of establishing a controlling office by Hollywood studios?

As the movie industry turned increasingly lucrative, it also found itself trapped in controversies. There was fear that the movies and its stars were a threat to the moral order of the society. Hence, to meet calls for censorship and handle public backlash, the Hollywood studios established their own controlling office, the Hays Office. in 1922.

Q: Which was the film that created many of the techniques of today?

The 12-minute classic, The Great Train Robbery, created by Edison’s employee Edwin Porter in 1903, was the technologically advanced motion picture that established many of the techniques that we take for granted today.

Keep Reading
Cursed Movies? No. Confirmation Bias? Probably.
The Great Depression—A Catastrophe Felt Around the World
Music History Monday: A Very Dangerous Opera