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- Auguste and Louis Lumière
Auguste and Louis Lumière
The Birth of Cinema
The Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, were French inventors renowned for developing an early motion-picture camera and projector known as the Cinématographe, from which the term “cinema” originates. Their work laid the foundational stones of the cinematic arts, transforming the way stories were told and experienced, and marking the dawn of a new era in entertainment and communication.
Auguste (left) and Louis (right) Lumière
In 1870, amid the Franco-Prussian War, Antoine Lumière moved his family away from France’s perilous eastern border to Lyon. There, as a talented portrait painter and acclaimed photographer, he started a small business in photographic plates.
His sons, Auguste and Louis, grew up deeply interested in their father’s craft. At 17, Louis developed a keen interest in the photographic plates their father produced. At that time, chemists had introduced a new kind of “dry” photographic plate, coated with a chemical emulsion, which, unlike the earlier “wet” plates, didn’t require immediate development. This innovation allowed photographers to venture further from their darkrooms. Louis made significant improvements to this dry plate technology, creating the successful “blue plate.” This invention spurred the opening of a new factory on Lyon’s outskirts. By the mid-1890s, the Lumière family operated Europe’s largest photographic factory, producing around 15 million plates annually.
A Kinetoscope viewing establishment in San Francisco, c. 1894–95
In 1894, Antoine Lumière attended an exhibition in Paris showcasing Thomas Edison and William Dickson’s Kinetoscope, often hailed as the first movie projector. The Kinetoscope, however, had a limitation: it could only display motion pictures to one viewer at a time through a peephole. Intrigued, Antoine envisioned a device capable of projecting film onto a screen for multiple viewers. Upon returning from Paris, he motivated his sons to start working on such an invention.
Just a year later, the Lumière brothers achieved a breakthrough, patenting the Lumière Cinématographe. This device was significantly smaller and lighter than the Kinetoscope, weighing approximately 11 pounds (5 kilograms) and operated by a hand-powered crank. Unlike the Kinetoscope, which was bulky and confined to filming in a studio, the Lumière Cinématographe allowed operators to capture spontaneous and candid footage outside studio environments.
The Cinématographe’s mechanism, resembling that of a sewing machine, threaded film intermittently and at a slower pace than the Kinetoscope’s 46 frames per second. This resulted in quieter operation and smoother, more fluid image movement on the screen.
Cinématographe at the Institut Lumière, France
Functioning as a three-in-one device for recording, developing, and projecting motion pictures, the Cinématographe stood out as the first practical film camera. Utilizing it, the Lumière brothers filmed their factory workers departing at day’s end. This film, titled “La Sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière” (“Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory”), debuted at an industrial meeting in Paris in March 1895 and is celebrated as the first motion picture.
Following the first public screening of this film, a local newspaper proclaimed, “We have already recorded and reproduced spoken words. We can now record and playback life. We will be able to see our families again long after they are gone.” Indeed, the Lumière brothers not only made history but also preserved it.
Despite inventing a camera capable of recording, developing, and projecting film, Auguste and Louis initially saw their invention as merely a fascinating novelty. Following their film’s public debut, Louis famously commented, “Le cinéma est une invention sans avenir” (“Cinema is an invention without a future”).
However, in 1896, the Lumière brothers launched Cinématographe theaters in London, Brussels, and New York City. They showcased over 40 films depicting everyday French life, including scenes like a child observing a goldfish bowl, a baby being fed, a blacksmith at work, and soldiers marching. Their footage of the French Photographic Society became the first newsreel, and a film featuring the Lyon Fire Department is recognized as the world’s first documentary. These films captivated audiences, who were mesmerized by the experience of watching life’s moments on the big screen.
By 1905, the Lumière brothers shifted their focus away from filmmaking to develop the Lumière Autochrome, the first practical photographic color process. Meanwhile, their groundbreaking motion picture camera, the Cinématographe, had already made a lasting impact, giving its name to a new and exciting art form: cinema.
Words of wisdom
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” —Pablo Picasso
“Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” —Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
“I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” —Jerome K. Jerome
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” —Rumi
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