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The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson

The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson

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The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson

By Paul Spehr

A magnificent piece of scholarship. W.K.L. Dickson was Thomas Edison’s assistant: for Edison he was in charge of experimentation that led to the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph.

Publication date: December 2008
Total pages: 712
ISBN: 9780 86196 695 0
Price: £ 35.00


W.K.L. Dickson was Thomas Edison’s assistant: for Edison he was in charge of experimentation that led to the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph, the first commercially successful moving image machines. Dickson established what we know today as the 35mm format (in 1891–1892); designed the Black Maria film studio and facilities to develop and print film; and he supervised production of more than 100 films for Edison (he acted as producer-director using an assistant to operate camera). After leaving Edison he was a founding member of the American Mutoscope Co. (later American Mutoscope & Biograph, then Biograph). He also set-up production; designed a studio; trained staff and supervised film production. In 1897 he went to England to set-up the European branch of the company and repeated all that again. During his career he made between 500 and 700 films and many of his films are images used by scholars of the period – Fred Ott Sneezing, Sandow Annabelle’s Butterfly Dances, etc.

His career touched many of the pioneers of the industry so by looking at his work, this well-illustrated book covers much of the early history of the industry, but from the perspective of his career. It is also a window on Thomas Edison, but from a quite different perspective.


Prologue: Introducing Mr. Dickson

Part I. Introducing Mr. Dickson
Chapter 1: Family Matters

Part II. 1883 - 1888 With Edison, Electricity and Iron Ore
Chapter 2: Goerck Street
Chapter 3: The Business of Invention; Electricity, Ore and the Phonograph
Chapter 4: Personal Matters
Chapter 5: From a Ladies Watch to a Locomotive; The New Laboratory

Part III. 1888 - 1893 The Quest for the Kinetoscope-Kinetograph
Chapter 6: The Germ of an Idea
Chapter 7: The Kineto-Phonograph: The Beginning of a Quest
Chapter 8: Trials, Errors, Mergers, Shenanigans and Speculation; Cylinders, Electricity, Phonographs and Iron
Chapter 9: Competition! There Were Others?
Chapter 10: A Certain Precipitate of Knowledge; The Kinetograph, Spring 1889
Chapter 11: Mr. Edison Triumphs in Europe and Dickson has a Busy Summer
Chapter 12: ‘Good Morning, Mr. Edison’ The Strip Kintograph
Chapter 13: Caveat, Film, an Announcement and a Conundrum; the Kineto after Paris
Chapter 14: ‘We Had a Hell of a Good Time ... ’ Ore Milling and Electricty, Dreams and Reality
Chapter 15: The Nickel-in-the-Slot Phonograph
Chapter 16: ‘Come Up Stairs and See the Germ Work’ ... Edison ‘Out-Edison’s Edison’ 1891: Problems, Success and Revisions
Chapter 17: Edison’s Agent
Chapter 18: ‘A Method of Taking and Using Photographs’ Patenting the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph
Chapter 19: ‘... Unaltered to Date’: Creating the Foundation of the Modern Motion Picture
Chapter 20: The Kinetoscope and Black Maria

Part IV. 1894 - 1896 Making Movies and Marketing the Kinetoscope
Chapter 21: Personal Affairs: Pictures, Words, Inventions
Chapter 22: Wizard Edison’s Wonderful Instrument: The Kinetoscope
Chapter 23: A Discontented Winter
Chapter 24: Between Careers; Publishing and New Opportunities

Part V. 1896 - 2003 Biographing: Filming in the States and Abroad
Chapter 25: The Age of Movement; A New Enterprise
Chapter 26: The Playful Specter of the Night; The Biograph on Screen
Chapter 27: Home Again
Chapter 28: The Pope and the Mutoscopes
Chapter 29: News in a Pictorial Way
Chapter 30: The Road to Ladysmith
Chapter 31: To Pretoria and Beyond: The Heart of the Biographer at Rest

Part VI. 1903 - 1935. After the Movies: A Laboratory and a Search for a Place in Posterity
Chapter 32: The Hope to See a Bright Future; The W.K.-L. Dickson Laboratory
Chapter 33: A Peculiar Memory for Details
Chapter 34: Forgotten by History? Evaluating Mr. Dickson


Paul Spehr is the retired former Assistant Chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. He is an archival consultant and film historian who has written a number of articles on the beginning years of cinema.

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