Film History Essentials: Dickson Greeting (1891)

What it’s about:

A man, William K. L. Dickson, stands illuminated by a bright light in a medium wide shot that extends to somewhere around his knees. In the footage that survives, he closes his eyes and passes his hat from his right hand to his left.

Why it’s essential:

Thomas Edison and the kinetograph graced the front page of the New York Sun on May 28, 1891, announcing the arrival of his “Latest and Most Surprising Device.” Edison had debuted it publicly for the first time several days earlier for an audience of 147 women’s club presidents hosted by his wife, Mina. As the paper recounted:

[H]e showed them the working model of his new Kinetograph, for that is the name he has given to the most wonderful of all his wonderful inventions.

“The surprised and pleased club women saw a small pine box standing on the floor. There were some wheels and belts near the box, and a workman who had them in charge. In the top of the box was a hole perhaps an inch in diameter. As they looked through this hole they saw the picture of a man. It was a most marvellous picture. It bowed and smiled and waved its hands and took off its hat with the most perfect naturalness and grace. Every motion was perfect. There was not a hitch or a jerk. No wonder Edison chuckled at the effect he produced with his Kinetograph.”

In the midst of thinking that Edison sounds a bit like Willy Wonka there, you might notice something conspicuously absent from the reporting: The name of the guy who actually made the 2 inventions Edison was demonstrating, who was probably the “workman” referenced, and who, in fact, even appeared in that motion picture to greet the visiting women! I’m referring, of course, to Dickson, who for some time was barely a footnote in the legend of Edison’s creation of motion pictures.

The article carries on at some length (you can read the whole thing beginning here, and continuing onto page 2 here), with Edison monologuing about his ambitious plans to combine the phonograph and the kinetograph to bring, say, both the sights and sounds of an opera performance directly into America’s living rooms. It reads like prophecy now, though Edison wouldn’t live to see everything he predicted come to fruition. The article goes on to imply that he sees the entire project as a toy that he just occasionally tinkers with when the mood strikes him:

All the work and time which he gives to the kinetograph he counts as his amusement. He took up the idea for amusement, and now that he has so far succeeded as to have gotten over being angry at the people who insinuated that he talked too much when he first spoke of his idea, he only works at [it] for amusement’s sake. […] It does not seem likely that the kinetograph will ever be put to a practical use, that is, for commercial purposes.

Maybe I have a different understanding of what “commercial purposes” means, since just a few sentences later Edison is outlining a plan (which he would soon carry out) to publicly install kinetoscopes that charge a nickel per show for people to see a motion picture. But I’m in danger now of being sucked down the Edison rabbit hole along with this 19th-century reporter.

Do you like how Edison not only takes sole credit for the idea and its construction, but also suggests that he did it on the side, just to prove a point, while allocating most of his mental resources on more important projects? That’s how you build a personal myth . . . at the expense of your employees making things happen behind the scenes.

You may also have noticed the description of the motion picture (Dickson Greeting) that the women saw inside the “small pine box” (kinetoscope) is a bit different from what we have today. In fact, you can see at the top a frame that is missing from the fragment of the film that we have. Edison attached that frame (1 of 5) to his August 24th patent application (my birthday, by the way!), and it was discovered several decades later, then lost again after being misfiled, before finally being found again quite recently. But much of the action that account describes is simply lost. Thankfully (and no thanks to Thomas Edison) the identity and contributions of the man who appears in the film are not lost along with it.

Why you should see it:

On May 20, 1891, motion pictures said “hello” to the world for the first time, but Dickson did the waving, the bowing, and the smiling on the medium’s behalf. Although Dickson directed well over a hundred films during the next decade, he only appeared in a very few himself. But I think he deserves the spot he took in this one. He was perhaps more intimately involved with the birth of what motion pictures became in the United States, and later his native England, than any other single figure, and he was all but forgotten for decades. Just take a moment to appreciate him here, greeting us from the very beginning.

~ by Jared on January 20, 2023.

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