(William Kennedy Laurie) Dickson was born in 1860 in Minihic-sur-Ranse,
France to an English father and a mother from Scottish descent.
In February 1879 the Dickson family, William,
his widowed mother and two sisters left France and moved to
England. Once settled in England the nineteen year old Dickson
wrote to Thomas Edison who, at that time, was working in Menlo
Park in America. In his letter Dickson presented himself as,
“...a friendless and fatherless boy” with “patience, perseverance,
an ardent love of science and above all a firm reliance on
God”. Dickson concluded his letter by asking for employment.
Dickson received a brief refusal.
Three months later, the Dickson’s were on the
move again, this time to the United States and four years
after settling there William was finally given a job at the
Edison Laboratories and quickly proved himself to be a valuable
In 1887, when Thomas Edison initially started
thinking about moving pictures, Dickson was occupied with
experimentation on a costly ore extraction process. The following
year Edison set Dickson to work developing his ideas. Edison’s
idea was centred around his sound capture device - the phonograph.
Initially Edison described a series of microphotographs
arranged in a spiral formation around the exterior surface
of a cylinder - in the same way as recorded sound tracks were
etched onto the surface of the tinfoil cylinders in the phonograph.
In addition Edison described the illumination of these microphotographs
from inside the cylinder using electric sparks.
The early experimentations carried out in Edison’s
laboratories show a determined effort to make this cylinder
method succeed. Dickson placed orders for many interesting
supplies - Magic Lantern plates, and plates from Eadweard
Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion Experiments. In September of
1888 Dickson ordered a quantity of microphotographic lenses
- clearly for use in his motion picture experiments.
Other ideas put forward by Edison to Dickson
included the coating of the cylinder with emulsion but this
proved difficult and Dickson sought other alternatives, travelling
to New York to obtain some “daguerreotype experiment” supplies.
In November 1888 John Carbutt announced to colleagues
in the field of photography announced his successful production
of photographic quality celluloid, available in 20 x 50 inch
sheets. The decision by Edison’s laboratory to order a dozen
Carbutt film sheets the following June seemed to signify an
end to the cylinder experiments but the Summer of 1889 saw
serious experimentation on what was now being called the Kinetoscope.
On August 2nd 1889, Edison left Dickson to continue
with the cylindrical moving picture machine and sailed to
Europe where he met Jules Marey.
Returning to his laboratories on October 6th
he found an addition to his premises - a new “Photographic
Building” had been erected to accommodate Dickson’s experiments.
Despite stimulus from two events - the introduction
to Marey’s roll film Chronophotographe and apparent competition
from William Friese-Greene (who had described a machine camera
for taking 10 photographs a second) no real attempt was made
to prioritise the Kinetoscope experiments and much of the
Summer of 1890 was spent by Dickson and Edison experimenting
with the Ore Extraction process.
Despite the Friese-Greene threat and the new
possibilities opened up by flexible film, cylinder experiments
continued on to the bitter end. In Late October of 1890, Dickson’s
hard work produced its first successful results. He was able
to show his first motion pictures produced by the cylinder
Kinetoscope. The viewed scenes, the so called “Monkeyshines”
starred one of the laboratory workers dressing up and fooling
around for the camera.
Results were clearly achieved by the cylinder
machine as evidence still exists pertaining to the fact, but
it was clearly a dead end. The moving pictures produced were
only viewable using huge monocular magnification - under which
the microscopic images would almost certainly appear grainy.
Work on the cylinder device ended late in 1890
and work began on a moving picture Kinetoscope using roll
film. By May of 1891 Dickson had produced a working prototype,
this followed with a camera and patent specifications for
the Kinetograph camera and Kinetoscope viewer were filed on
24th August 1891.
Edison’s announcement that he would show films
on his new Kinetoscope at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition
meant that a great deal of work was needed to fulfil the expected
twenty five machines. Dickson identified the need for films
to show in these machines and when Dickson perfected the Kinetograph
Camera in October 1892, he set to work designing a studio
to make these films.
Building work began on the studio in December
in the grounds of Edison’s West Orange Laboratory. The studio
was constructed of wood and tar paper with a removable roof
and sat on circular tracks enabling rotation to trap the maximum
amount of sunlight. The studio became known as the “Black
Maria” due to its supposed similarities to the police wagons
of the period.
Regrettably the twenty five Kinetoscopes promised
for the Chicago Fair weren’t ready by its opening in May 1893.
Edison’s reputation as an inventor and businessman
meant that Dickson was able to persuade major showbusiness
figures to travel from New York to the Black Maria Studio
to star in Edison films. Many vaudeville acts travelled to
New Jersey, often waiving their fee including Eugene Sandlow
- “The Strongest Man in the World”, and Ruth Dennis - “High
In the two years that followed, Dickson’s Kinetoscope
attracted performances from Barnum and Bailey’s Circus and
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show - featuring Annie Oakley and
Buffalo Bill Cody.
April the first 1894 saw the appointment of
a new general manager of Edison’s Enterprises - William E.
Glimore. Friction was soon generated between Dickson and Gilmore,
Gilmore insisting that all copyrights held in Dickson’s name
be changed to Edison.
The growing differences between Dickson and
his employer was aggravated further when Edison put Dickson’s
colleague, Charles Kayser, to work developing a projection
apparatus for motion pictures. Edison had previously stated
categorically that he had no interest in projecting moving
pictures in favour of the current peephole method.
Outside of work, Dickson spent time with the
Latham’s (Gray and Otway) as well as with engineer friend
Henry Norton Marvin and his partner Herman Casler. With Marvin
and Casler, Dickson discussed the idea of a simple alternative
to the Kinetoscope.
Retaining the peepshow format Dickson’s idea
involved an elaboration on the flick-book principle and on
November 21 1894 Casler filed a patent application for this
device under the name Mutoscope. The following March Casler
demonstrated a camera - the Biograph to take “views” for the
Around this time is recorded a confrontation
between Dickson and William Gilmore, little is known about
what exactly was said but it is believed Gilmore accused Dickson
of being disloyal to Edison. Dickson, upset and angry that,
after all his hard work his loyalty was called into question
resigned from Edison’s Company on April 2nd 1895.
By early June in 1895, Casler’s camera was
in operation and Dickson appears to have spent that summer
Canastota, New York, with Marvin and Casler and probably
made some of the first mutoscope films.
Dickson was now firmly committed to the development
of the Mutoscope, November 5th 1895 saw its patent issued
and nine days later a application for a patent was made for
a handheld mutoscope. November also saw a mutoscope adapted
with a mirror device to project motion pictures and soon after
the group perfected a through the film projector which they
called the Biograph.
The American Mutoscope company was established
on December 27th 1895 - the partners listed as Dickson, Marvin,
Casler and Elias Hoopman. They set up premises at 841 Broadway,
in New York.
Dickson’s knowledge of the European marketplace
made him an ideal candidate for manager of the Mutoscope and
Biograph Syndicate’s London Office, which he became as the
century drew to a close.