On this day in 1897 Thomas Alva Edison was granted a patent for one of his latest inventions, a primitive motion-picture device he dubbed the Kinetoscope. (He had, in fact, been building them for several years.) At first, Edison — usually a canny businessman — didn’t see much practical value in his contraption, a wooden cabinet with a small window through which one would watch images come to life via a running loop of film. Even geniuses make mistakes: the Kinetoscope would give rise to motion-picture projectors — which transformed what was a small and solitary experience into something large and communal — and, with it, the art form (and business) we call film. (A quick ironic aside: Edison, no dummy, soon realized the enormous commercial potential of the new technology, and it was his aggressive protection of this intellectual property that caused a small army of independent filmmakers to leave the East Coast and relocate in a perpetually sunny small town clear across the country, a place called… Hollywood. True story.)
Anyway, it might be worthwhile to take a look at some of those early Kinetoscope shorts (excerpted in the clip below) and imagine the sense of astonishment, even wonder, that must have struck a lucky viewer back then, as he or she peered through a tiny porthole and witnessed the flickering bits of magic and light. (Shouldn’t be too hard, since movie-watching is once again a solitary experience of peering at a teeny flickering image in a box.) Watch ’em and you’ll probably laugh, as I did. But watch again and something happens: you see a moment both sweet and wry as a couple shyly osculate in “The Kiss,” a quiet dignity beneath the brawny bravado in “Sandow: The Strong Man.” This is the strange power of film, that an astonishing well of emotions and feelings can be stirred by a succession of images parading across our retinas. It happens when you watch “Serpentine Dances,” or Gone With the Wind, or Kill Bill, Vol. 2. And it all comes back to a wooden box built by a latter-day wizard some 110 years ago.