Silent Cinema: Who Invented the Movies?

Trying to say definitively who invented the movies is a little like trying to say who invented fire—the records are sketchy, everybody who knows for certain is dead, and what evidence that does remain comes largely from the self-serving accounts of Thomas Edison's patent lawyers.

And where do you start, which is to say, what was the first indispensable step toward what we now think of as motion pictures? If I knew his name, I'd say it was the first caveman who thought to entertain his neighbors with shadow puppets and firelight. In fact, two of the key elements of film, movement and representation, have been staples of art and entertainment since at least the ancient Greek stage.

Turner Classic Movie's documentary, Moguls and Movie Stars, began with seventeenth century Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens who in 1659 invented the magic lantern show—a process of projecting light through a painted slide onto a wall or screen—and in terms of being entertained while sitting in the dark looking at pictures on a wall, the magic lantern is a reasonable place to start a history of the movies. Over the course of the two hundred years that followed, these magic lantern shows became quite sophisticated—by stacking slides one in front of the other and manipulating them, a projectionist could create the illusion of movement—and were one of the most popular forms of entertainment during the 19th century.

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