Precisely when did the darkness first begin to glow, take shape, and move? ... I am not referring to matters biblical, but to something only slightly less awesome, i.e., the birth of the motion picture. Tracing the beginnings of the film-that "mystic commotion," as critic Brander Matthews described it in 1895-is only a little less frustrating than determining the origin of homo sapiens. Everybody says things got going sometime during the decade of the 189Os, but precisely when? Vying for pride of place among many competing dates for the cinematic Big Bang are, to select a few, May 20,1891, when Thomas Edison unveiled his peephole viewing machine, the Kinetoscope, at a convention of the Federation of Women's Clubs; August 24 of that same year, when Edison applied for a Kinetoscope patent; April 14,1894, the opening of the first commercial peepshow parlor at 1155 Broadway in New York City; and, during the years 1895-96, numerous instances of the first publicly projected programs of motion pictures by (among others) the Latham brothers (May 20,1895) and Edison (April 20,1896).
At least as important as these well-known dates is October 6,1893. Although it is rarely mentioned, even in the more obscure historical chronicles, it was on that day that the Library of Congress cleared a copyright application, No. 44732, for a film strip entitled Edison Kinetoscopic Records. According to Pat Loughney, who wrote a dissertation (1988) on the library's Paper Print Collection, No. 44732 had been originally submitted by W.K.L. Dickson, an employee of Thomas Edison, on August 16. The October 6 clearance constitutes the first copyright of a film strip. Dickson, who was familiar with the procedures of copyright law, was wary of Edison's penchant for taking full credit for the innovations of others, and he wanted to establish an official proof of his own creative connection to the development of moving images. Ironically, after some subsequent legal maneuvering, Edison and his lawyers managed to get the Dickson copyrights reassigned to Edison in July 1894. "Forever after," writes Loughney, "Edison could prevent [Dickson's] claims to any monetary returns from Kinetoscope films." Details are sparse about No. 44732, except that one sequence of pictures may have borne the title, "Carmencita." Unfortunately, the paper print copies were misplaced in the library in 1943, along with the original correspondence, and remain lost.
For my part, I am tempted to nominate May 7,1895, as another contender for the movies' true natal day-the first book publication of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. Wells's timebending contraption is, after all, really just a poetic metaphor for the film medium itself. The appearance of the book may be considered as the first public recognition that the film medium constitutes a significant confluence of the mechanical, social, and poetic currents of our world.
Ironically, few observers in the 189Os thought that any of these dates constituted a birth announcement of the movies at all. …