W.K.L. Dickson

Active - 1890 - 1896  |   Born - Jan 1, 1860   |   Died - Jan 1, 1935   |  

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Biography by Jason Ankeny

Although his accomplishments have been long overshadowed by his legendary mentor, Thomas Edison, as well as by the Lumière Brothers, a convincing argument can be made that British engineer William Kennedy (W.K.) Laurie Dickson was the true father of the film industry. Without Dickson's dream of elevating the primitive concept of moving pictures to a form of popular entertainment virtually limitless in scope, the cinema might never have progressed beyond its original status as a novelty, a toy for children. Not only was he the movies' most tireless early supporter, he was also the first true filmmaker, and every director from the Hollywood mainstream to the fringes of the avant-garde owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Born in 1860 in Minihic-sur-Ranse, France, Dickson was 19 when he first contacted Edison to seek work at the inventor's Menlo Park, NJ, laboratory. Dickson's request was promptly refused, but four years later he boarded an oceanliner and traveled to the U.S. to speak to the inventor in person. Edison finally relented, and in 1888 he assigned Dickson to investigate the progress made by several other inventors (including the famed Eadweard Muybridge) who were also working toward the goal of documenting motion. Dickson criss-crossed the globe on the trail of devices capable of making photographs move. Upon absorbing the lessons of various inventors, he also studied the early transparent celluloid of John Carbutt as well as the work of Hannibal Goodwin, an Episcopalian minister who had learned to apply photographic emulsion in order to roll film.

By November 1890, Dickson had fashioned his own crude camera, which he dubbed the Kinetograph. With it, he filmed Monkeyshines, a five-second movie following the actions of fellow lab assistant Fred Ott. The Kinetograph was a relatively simple creation, manufacturing the illusion of motion as the filmstrip passed behind a spinning wheel and in front of an illuminated lens at a rate of 46 frames per second. The basic design of the machine remained the prototype for the cameras developed in its wake; the film used was Eastman Company 35 mm stock, advanced by sprockets and illuminated by an electric bulb. Refined by the Edison team to become the Kinetoscope, which implemented a peephole viewer to allow paying customers to watch the seconds-long films, Dickson's creation was introduced to the public in 1892, and became an immediate sensation.

Edison, however, felt the only real audience for motion pictures was children, and believed even they would tire of the novelty quickly. Despite urging to stay ahead of the competition by devising a means of projection, he saw no use in exhibiting the invention to large audiences and ordered Dickson to halt all future experimentation. Dickson refused to give up on the project, however, and soon he had convinced inventor Thomas Armat, who had developed a rotating arm on a projector to create intermittent movement, to hand over his patents and allow his ideas to become absorbed into Edison's product. Armat's breakthrough enabled Dickson to construct the very first motion-picture stage inside of a large studio -- essentially a tar-strip shack -- christened the Black Maria. There he directed a number of short films about one minute in length, including 1892's Carmencita Dancing and the following year's Blacksmith Scene, many of which starred Dickson himself and a few of which even experimented with sound.

The finished product, named the Vitascope, bowed in 1895. A cumbersome but serviceable camera and projector system, it was a landmark achievement, but its success was the final nail in the coffin of Dickson and Edison's working relationship. Unable to agree about the future of the Vitascope, they soon parted ways. Dickson soon founded the American Biograph Company, and as Edison owned the rights to the Vitascope, Dickson was forced to rebuild his own invention under the name Mutograph. Debuting in 1896 with Empire State Express, American Biograph quickly emerged as one of the most influential studios of all time, launching the careers of such towering cinematic figures as D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, cameraman Billy Bitzer, and editor Edwin S. Porter. Dickson soon developed the Biograph, a camera and projector system far superior to the Vitascope. However, lacking the kind of sales force necessary to compete with Edison, the Biograph did not fare well, and Dickson sold a portion of his interest in the machine in order to return to London in 1897. He died in Twickenham, Middlesex, England, in 1935 at the age of 75.