Film History Essentials: Monkeyshines, No. 1 & 2 (1890)

What it’s about:

A blurred, indistinct figure, shot from around the knees up, engages in some sort of performance for the camera that involves moving their arms. Then, a somewhat clearer, but still blurry, figure goes through a series of more exaggerated movements for the camera, waving their arms and twisting and bending their body before removing what appears to be some kind of hat.

Why it’s essential:

In early 1888, Eadweard Muybridge (Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, Buffalo Running, etc.) visited Thomas Edison at his New Jersey laboratory and talked with him about combining the Muybridge zoopraxiscope with the Edison phonograph to create motion pictures with sound. This was the same idea Wordsworth Donisthorpe already had (albeit using his own kinesigraph, rather than the zoopraxiscope) a decade earlier. Edison didn’t take Muybridge up on the proposal. Instead, he waited several months and then filed a patent for a device that would be the visual counterpart to the phonograph. He called it the “kinetoscope*,” and he assigned a team headed by William K. L. Dickson to develop it. (The kinetoscope, unlike the phonograph, ended up just being the “playback” device. The corresponding camera, developed during the same period, was called the “kinetograph.”)

At first, work focused on recording images on a rotating cylinder (as seen at right), an idea that was presumably rooted in its similarity to the wax cylinders used by Edison’s phonographs. That idea ultimately proved unworkable, but the team continued to pursue it into the following year. Nevertheless, it did produce the first ever motion pictures recorded in the United States. Monkeyshines, No. 1 and No. 2 (and a lost No. 3) were experiments, never meant to be seen by an audience. It’s notable that both of these surviving examples are an obvious step backward from almost everything else we’ve seen. These were not successful experiments, though their significance is undeniable (in part because they weren’t successful).

Meanwhile, late in the summer of 1889, Edison traveled to the Paris World’s Fair, where the just-completed Eiffel Tower had been unveiled. While Edison was in Paris, he met Étienne-Jules Marey (L’Homme Machine, Mosquinha, etc.) and learned of his use of celluloid film strips to capture sequential images. He also witnessed the Théâtre Optique and the electrical tachyscope in action. The former was a system invented by Charles-Émile Reynaud (La Rosace Magique, Le Singe Musicien) for turning a strip of hand-drawn images into animated moving pictures by drawing them rapidly past a system of lights and mirrors using a series of perforations between each image. The latter was a different projection device invented by German photographer Ottomar Anschütz that relied, in part, on an intermittent light source to produce the illusion of a moving image. When Edison returned in the fall, he filed a patent caveat for a system that incorporated perforated strips of film that could be drawn through the system by means of sprockets, and ultimately the design incorporated intermittent light as well.

So, if Edison returned with fresh ideas in the fall of 1889, why was Dickson still experimenting with cylinders in 1890? There is actually a disagreement over whether these were produced in June of 1889 or November of 1890, with evidence that supports both claims. It certainly makes sense that they could be from before Edison’s Paris trip. On the other hand, some sources suggest Edison’s initial idea was to record the images directly onto the cylinder, and that they experimented with different materials for the cylinder and different coatings. But the surviving Monkeyshines actually consist of images on photosensitive paper (as seen at left) wrapped around a cylinder rather than recorded directly on it, suggesting that they spent additional time on successive iterations of the cylinder idea.

Also, in From Peep Show to Palace, David Robinson says: “Despite […] the new possibilities offered by flexible film, the cylinder experiments seem to have been carried on to the bitter end.” (pg. 29) And it’s not as if they were struggling along with cylinders during that entire year. For a full 6 months in the middle of 1890, Dickson seems to have abandoned the project entirely in order to work on another, more-pressing venture. Robinson further suggests that it was actually the obvious failure of Monkeyshines (after almost 2 years of work, albeit sporadic) that finally convinced them to give up their stubborn attempts with cylinders entirely.

You may have noticed that I’ve name-checked almost every photographer or inventor we’ve discussed so far at some point above. Thomas Edison would spend the next quarter century aggressively establishing and maintaining control of the entire concept of motion pictures as his own intellectual property, so it’s worth pointing out that he stole the idea itself and many of the elements that made it work from men who had already been working in the field for several years, and then handed off the actual development of the technology to someone else.

He made all sorts of utterly ludicrous claims in later decades that we know to be outright fabrications, including that he had “invented the modern motion picture in the Summer of 1889” and that he had been “able to perfect the motion-picture camera” in 1887, in order to claim that he was the man who had, all on his own, invented motion pictures. However, his own initial idea, to simply rework the mechanism of the phonograph for sight instead of sound, was a total dead-end, and it seems unlikely in the extreme that anyone working under his direction would have cracked the problem if the solution were dependent on him alone. (You can see the completed experimental kinetoscope on the right, and watch it in action here.)

There’s no question that Edison was a brilliant inventor, but in some ways he was an even more brilliant entrepreneur, and if there was a limit to his utterly ruthless shamelessness, I’m not sure what it was. A more charitable reading might point out that for almost 20 years, several different innovators had been circling around a breakthrough in creating and exhibiting motion pictures, but for various reasons no one had actually managed to bring it about. Edison was the man who had the vision to put all of the pieces together, and both the resources and the killer instinct to build it into a successful business venture. But he was also a man who played for all the marbles, and that had consequences.

There’s a strange irony to Edison’s (“Edison’s”) first experimental films being called “Monkeyshines,” an old-timey word that means “playful, mischievous behavior” . . . The one thing Edison wasn’t doing here was just playing around.

Why you should see it:

It’s strange to watch the Monkeyshines because they look exactly like what you’d expect a “first-ever motion picture” to look like: barely developed and incredibly primitive . . . an idea that is in its infancy. They look, in fact, very much like the “indescribable blur” that Sir George Newnes’ pair of “experts” predicted would be the result of any attempt to photograph motion. But we know, and Edison and Dickson certainly also knew, that it had already been done quite successfully. It’s just that they were starting on the problem entirely from scratch without reference to any of the advances that had been made already. They had to fail their way before they could succeed someone else’s way. But it’s an interesting failure, and I can see why Edison found it an attractive idea to pursue. You can also see from the picture above that this was an idea for exhibition of motion pictures, but not an idea for projection. With this invention, one person watches at a time, and that feature of the kinetoscope, as we will see, remained.

~ by Jared on January 16, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Monkeyshines, No. 1 & 2 (1890)”

  1. […] might have seen a few seconds of someone waving and bowing. Edison and Dickson were barely past the Monkeyshines days of images blurred beyond recognition into a shapeless blob. But by the time of this release, […]

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