Film History Essentials: Nicholas Sisters Split Dance (1895)

What it’s about:

In the fragment that survives, two women wave farewell to the camera-as-audience as they move to depart out of the frame in opposite directions. The woman on the left skips energetically straight out of our line of sight, while the one on the right begins to sidestep a bit more gracefully but does not reach the edge of the frame.

Why it’s essential:

For 20 years after Passage de Vénus captured the first known sequence of images of a body in motion, development of motion picture technology had advanced steadily and inexorably, but not always with an obvious direction. A lot of different people had worked on the problem with equally varying results. Some (like Muybridge and Marey) had solved the particular angle they were working without actually inventing “the movies.” Others had toyed with the idea, even tackled it seriously, but for one reason or another their efforts had come to nothing. Some simply lacked the skill, but others had poor luck, poor timing, or were just . . . poor. Or at least, they were too poor to finance their big idea until they could make it work.

Most importantly, there were two inciting elements missing during these pre-movie years: First, no one had done it yet, so no one really knew for sure that it could be done. Second, even a lot of the people trying to do it didn’t seem to have a solid plan for what they would do with it if they succeeded. What would even be the point of a moving picture? Then, in 1894, Edison lit a fuse when he started manufacturing kinetoscopes and films, simultaneously demonstrating that it could be done, and that if you did it, you could sell it.

In 1895, the fuse reached the powder, and motion pictures exploded worldwide. One thing Edison hadn’t done yet—the last missing piece of the motion picture as we know it—was projection onto a screen for an audience. That was the peak that a lot of people, inspired by the kinetoscope, had set out at once to conquer, and several of them succeeded in 1895. One of the American teams that went to work on projection, as it happened, had already been in on the ground floor of the kinetoscope.

Those enterprising financial visionaries of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company, who had prevailed upon Edison to build them modified machines that they could use to record and show prize fights like the Leonard-Cushing Fight, had been successfully riding that business model to a whole chain of kinetoscope parlors in major cities across the country, all showing fights they’d arranged. But it was clear to them that Edison’s whole one-viewer-at-a-time arrangement was placing severe limitations on their cash flow potential. They once again went to Edison to prevail upon him to work out a means to project motion pictures onto a screen, but Edison was firmly married to his kinetoscope “peep show” model. So they decided, fine, maybe they’d just do it themselves.

These two go-getters were the Latham brothers, Grey and Otway, and actually they weren’t going to do it themselves, because they were salesmen, not engineers. But they had connections. They went first to their father, Major Woodville Latham (see left), a veteran of the Confederacy who was also a professor of chemistry. Together, the three men formed the Lambda Company (as in the Greek letter “L”) in December of 1894. They also brought on Enoch J. Rector, a former classmate and their partner in the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company, and (most importantly) a man with some technical skill. And, last but not least, they made a play for the man behind the kinetoscope himself, William K.L. Dickson.

Dickson knew better than to join the project openly. His conflict of interest was clear, and Edison would have zero tolerance for it. Nevertheless, he was as interested in the project as anyone, so he agreed to work with them in secret. He also recommended that they hire Eugene Lauste, a former Edison employee who had worked on Dickson’s kinetoscope team until 1892. The engineering team of Latham (the elder), Lauste, and Rector set to work, with some quiet help from Dickson.

Knowing they had very different goals from Edison’s, they started the design process completely over from scratch. They wanted a camera that would be more portable, and of course that could record much longer films than the kinetograph. They were also thinking in terms of projection onto a large screen, not a tiny image viewed inside of a box. One of their first innovations was to use a much wider filmstock, basically the equivalent of a modern widescreen aspect ratio. Within just a few months, they had initial solutions to the other problems as well, and were ready to demonstrate a device they were calling the Panoptikon. They gave a demonstration of it to the press on April 21, 1895, marking the first projected motion picture in America (see right).

Less than 3 weeks earlier, on April 2, Dickson had been confronted by Edison’s bulldog of a vice-president, William Gilmore, over his work with the Lathams. According to Dickson’s account of the exchange, Gilmore accused him, in front of Edison, of conducting himself dishonorably. Edison jumped in to assure Dickson that he didn’t believe that, and Dickson confidently seized the opportunity to present an ultimatum: Either Gilmore should leave the company, or Dickson should. Apparently Edison hesitated in replying until it became awkward, and Dickson resigned on the spot. Multiple historians have suggested that Gilmore’s power plays (both here and in other instances) were a significant contributing factor to the issues with patents that would soon emerge and keep Edison tied up in court for over two decades.

Meanwhile, on May 4, on the roof of Madison Square Garden, the team recorded their first actual film that wasn’t just a test. It was, of course, a boxing match: Young Griffo v. Battling Charles Barnett. And reportedly it was as much as 12 minutes long, a staggering achievement in itself. See, all of these cameras worked by yanking the film strip down so that one frame was exposed, then yanking it again to move onto the next frame, over and over up to dozens of times per second depending on the frame rate. Pulling jerkily against the entire weight of a roll of film would place too much strain on both the film and the mechanism unless the roll was fairly short (i.e. Edison’s 50-150 feet). The solution to this was to design an additional mechanism that would steadily draw out the roll of film and feed it into a small loop (see above) so that the mechanism that yanked each frame into place was only ever pulling against that small loop of film rather than the entire roll.

Major Latham patented this mechanism the following year. It was extremely important to both motion picture cameras and projectors, and it would forever be known as the Latham loop, although the matter was extensively litigated. One thing that every film historian seems to agree on is that Latham probably didn’t deserve the credit for it, though who did is a bit murkier. Lauste, Rector, and Dickson likely all contributed to some extent, but as almost everyone involved eventually ended up with competing business interests, things got contentious. For what it’s worth, Lauste, whose claim was backed by Dickson, seems to have the strongest case. But they were the two who continued working together, so it was also somewhat in Dickson’s interest to support Lauste’s claim.

However, all of that legal wrangling was in the future. For now, things were still going well, except that “Panoptikon” was too similar to “panopticon,” a term that already existed in several different contexts (architecture, philosophy, etc.). So before unveiling their new inventions publicly, they decided to rebrand. They drew their inspiration from a science fiction short story, by a Scottish immigrant named Robert Duncan Milne, about an invention that can visually replay past events. The story was called “The Eidoloscope,” and that was the name the Lambda Company adopted for their projector. The camera was labeled the Eidolograph.

On May 20, 1895, the Lathams premiered Young Griffo v. Battling Charles Barnett projected onto a screen in a little storefront in Manhattan, before an audience who had paid 25 cents a ticket. It was the first-ever commercial presentation of a projected motion picture film, in America and in the world. The Eidoloscope had just made history.

It would be hard to understate the significance of this landmark, except that the achievement was barely noticed and was soon practically forgotten. The Eidoloscope burned brightly, but all too briefly . . . Well, in actuality, the Lathams had the opposite problem. Apparently some technical aspect of the projector’s construction (that I don’t entirely understand) meant that it required a tremendous amount of light to operate effectively. Due to a combination of limitations of the design and of contemporary technology, as exhibitors began to do shows around the country, the availability and brightness of the light source was frequently an issue.

Long before those issues could be resolved, the enterprise had more or less disintegrated. Rector and Samuel Tilden (another partner from the original Kinetoscope Exhibition Company) left to forge their own path making boxing movies. Dickson departed, and took Lauste with him. Within a year, the Eidoloscope was also facing stiff competition from other movie projectors, and a series of legal battles with America’s most litigious inventor was just beginning.

But for the relatively brief period during which it operated, the Lambda Company generated a unique slate of films. The most notable of these was an adaptation of Carmen that incorporated scenes of a real bull fight shot in Mexico by Gray Latham and Lauste. This would have been one of the earliest, and possibly the earliest, multi-scene narrative films ever made. Unfortunately, all of the Lambda films are presumed lost. Every. Single. One.

The one Eidoloscope production you can watch is a segment of about 20 frames of the Nicholas Sisters Split Dance that a filmmaker recently discovered in a women’s magazine and reconstructed. It’s a tantalizing glimpse at a kind of moving image that’s very different from what we’ve seen of the kinetoscope films (even accounting for the print-quality images, which seem to be even more lacking in detail than those used to reconstruct the missing portion of Fred Ott’s Sneeze). It’s almost like a glimpse into an alternate history of motion pictures, similar yet slightly different from our own.

Why you should see it:

This incredibly brief fragment that is almost the sole surviving representative of an entire production company’s output is almost as intriguing for what I don’t know about it as for what I do. I haven’t been able to discover what a “split dance” is, other than that it’s some type of skirt dance and was likely meant to be at least mildly titillating. I also don’t have any additional information on the sisters (or “sisters”?) who starred in this act, including their first names. There’s so little visible detail that I don’t even have a guess as to their ages.

Actually, I’m not even completely sure I have their last name right. The filmmaker who discovered this fragment identifies them as the “Nichols” sisters, and I assume he has a reason for believing that to be correct. I don’t have any primary sources that say one way or another, but their name is given as “Nicholas” in the “Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema,” in Terry Ramsaye’s seminal A Million and One Nights, and in this film’s index listing on “The Progressive Silent Film List,” so that’s what I went with.

But as interesting as it would be to know literally anything more than the basically nothing that I know, I doubt it would add much to the singular experience of seeing this bit of Nicholas Sisters Split Dance. In the briefest of moments, they give off an air of being savvy and charismatic performers who know how to play to a crowd, even one that isn’t present. Whether this was actually true at the time or not (and for the Eidoloscope itself it evidently was not), it’s at least certain that for us, they’ve forever left their audience wanting more.

Acknowledgement: What I do here is meant to be completely factual and historical and I strive for accuracy, but this is not a rigorous, formal academic project, so I generally haven’t cited sources unless I am quoting them directly. I consult primary sources as much as I can, and otherwise I stick to information that I feel I have been able to somewhat confirm myself, or that is more generally-known/corroborated by various reliable secondary sources. However, this particular post would probably not exist at all without the work of Peter Domankiewicz, which gave me a foothold into how I could frame the story of the Eidoloscope in a way that fit my own vision for this project. So I wanted to credit him with that . . . but also I think he deserves a lot more credit for the work he’s done in early film history on his site. You can check that out here.


~ by Jared on February 8, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Nicholas Sisters Split Dance (1895)”

  1. […] modify it). Then, in 1895, he was part of the Lambda Company when they exhibited a boxing match as the first film ever projected for a commercial audience. But as Lambda succumbed to bad management and technical problems, he was […]


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