Film History Essentials: Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894)

What it’s about:

A man framed in a medium close up shot and holding up a handkerchief in his right hand inhales a pinch of snuff from his left hand. He leans back and sneezes, then immediately sneezes again.

Why it’s essential:

Sometime during the first week of 1894, William Dickson and Fred Ott, one of Edison’s engineers, were in the Black Maria to shoot a motion picture. Dickson was directing and Ott was the star. This motion picture, oddly enough, wasn’t intended to be viewed on the kinetoscope. It’s purpose was closer to something we’d expect from Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography: The pictures were requested by Harper’s Weekly for an article called “The Record of a Sneeze.” Edison, no doubt seeing an opportunity for free publicity, was happy to oblige, and the article was published in the March 24, 1894 issue. You can see it here, complete with all 81 frames of the sneeze itself. Meanwhile, the complicated history of Fred Ott’s sneeze was just beginning.

On January 9, 1894, this became one of the first motion pictures to be registered for copyright. In fact, for over a century it was believed to be the oldest surviving copyrighted motion picture, and that’s how you’ll still see it described virtually anywhere you look. Leaving that aside for the moment . . . Because it was among the first images people saw of motion pictures taken by Edison’s new kinetograph, the sneeze became somewhat famous and was forever associated with the birth of motion pictures in the United States. The strangest thing about it was that, because it had never been intended for viewing, no one actually even watched it for 60 years.

When Edison began producing films for commercial purposes in the mid-1890s, there was no provision in copyright law to protect the works of this new medium, but there were copyright protections (dating back to 1865) for photographs. Copyright law would not be amended until 1912, and until then, filmmakers produced paper prints of every frame of their motion pictures and submitted them to be copyrighted as photographs. This arrangement had other advantages as well, as early motion pictures were mostly made on nitrate stock, a highly-flammable substance that requires special handling to be stored safely. In 1894, the Library of Congress simply didn’t have a way to do that.

Over 5,000 films were archived this way, and then apparently they were mostly forgotten. The collection was rediscovered in the 1930s, and eventually the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was able to fund a restoration project. In 1953, they hired a man named Kemp Niver, a private detective, to convert these paper prints back into film (that’s him on the far left of the photograph). Ultimately, he was able to salvage 3,600 of the stored films, but it took him over a decade.

And that’s how, sometime in 1954, Fred Ott’s sneeze was finally seen as a moving image for the first time (although many film histories mistakenly say otherwise). Niver was awarded a special Oscar in 1955 for his restoration work, and after completing the work he naturally became a film scholar and professor of film history. But just listen to this description of his early years from his obituary:

Niver was a teenage Navy aviator, commander of a Navy destroyer during World War II, a homicide detective in the Los Angeles Police Department, an investigator for the Los Angeles County district attorney, an actors’ bodyguard and a traveling photographer for President Dwight D. Eisenhower before he settled into becoming a film historian.

The Los Angeles Times, Oct. 28, 1996

What. A. Life. But I digress . . .

It turns out, the copy Dickson sent in to be copyrighted in 1894 consisted of 45 images, in which Ott sneezes only once, and these were the images that Niver turned into film. This is the version you’ll see almost everywhere online. But as I said above, the original work consisted of 81 images, and Ott sneezed a second time. This discrepancy went unnoticed until 2013, when it was discovered by film historian Dan Streible, and the Library of Congress produced a 35mm print of the film that incorporated the missing 36 frames. And that is how the almost first motion to be copyrighted was never seen in its entirety by anyone until almost 120 years after it was filmed. 2 years later, in 2015, it was added to the National Film Registry.

But about that “almost the first” that I’ve danced around twice now. Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze was copyrighted by name in January of 1894, but for many years scholars have wondered about an official entry in the copyright record book that is a few months older, listed only as “Edison Kinetoscopic Records” with no additional title or information. Was this first copyright a now-lost Dickson film from 1893? With no title and no additional information, it was impossible to know for sure, which made Sneeze the oldest surviving copyrighted film. However, a registration letter along with paper copies of the film in question ought to have existed somewhere, they’d just never been found despite decades of searching through the library’s mountains of material.

Then, in the summer of 2022, Dr. Claudy Op den Kamp of Bournemouth University received a 6-month fellowship with the object of locating the missing documents, and she had a previously-untried idea about where to start looking. She decided to search the correspondence of Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the Librarian of Congress from 1864 to 1897, and in fact, the man who successfully argued for the 1870 law that required, among other things, copies of all copyrighted material be deposited with the Library of Congress. This angle of research presented Dr. Op den Kamp with 250 boxes of correspondence to sort through, with records relating to somewhere around half a million copyright registrations.

She had just one week left in her 6 months when she found it: a November 1893 letter from William Dickson (pictured at left), asking for an update on a copyright application from October. And, most importantly of all, the letter included 18 attached images from the film in question. The images were unmistakably from Dickson’s Blacksmith Scene, now confirmed as the first film ever copyrighted in the United States. Her discovery, only a few months old as of this writing, marks another first on Blacksmith Scene‘s already long list and bumps Sneeze to second place. Though I’d say the latter’s time in the spotlight across its long and unusual journey through film history still speak to its significance.

Why you should see it:

The version of Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze that I’ve included below is the complete version that was finally restored in 2013, and you’ll notice a significant change in quality between the frames that already existed on 16mm film (from 1954) and the frames that only existed as halftone prints from Harper’s Weekly 60 years earlier. But the story of Niver’s restoration has its own points of interest. In 1964, Niver published an article entitled “From Film to Paper to Film: The Story of the Library of Congress Paper-Print Conversion Program” describing the process of his work and the many challenges he and his team had to overcome. Niver is an engaging writer, and his account is as funny and entertaining as it is fascinating:

We can now say that there are some 27 separate and distinctly different problems which might occur in any roll of paper, but the conversion program had been in existence for nearly 2 years before we discovered as many as 15; 13 of these seemingly unsurmountable ones confronted us in the first 3 weeks!

Just about the time we would become smug in our security, a roll of paper print made by some little man with a moving picture camera of his very own, constructed from a cigar box, some spare parts from a plow, and pieces of his grandmother’s sewing machine, would present us with another problem that might have us stumped for as long as 5 weeks.

The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 251-252

The Sneeze (as he calls it) is one of the few films whose conversion process Niver explains in detail in the article. He and his colleagues realized that the frames they had would produce only just over a second of footage when run at modern speeds, as the original film seemed to have been exposed at a much faster rate than normal. They solved this problem by reproducing each of the 45 frames 4 times, so that Ott’s movement would appear normal when projected at the standard 24 frames per second.

And if none of this information inspires you to want to see this famous sneeze for yourself, then . . . Well, that just shouldn’t be possible.

~ by Jared on January 25, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894)”

  1. […] films were essentially remakes of Anschütz’s work, including both The Barbershop and Record of a Sneeze, and that he may have also inspired films by the likes of the Lumière Brothers and Georges […]

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