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Inventing Motion Pictures

Black Maria

"The Great Train Robbery"




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Thomas Edison





Black Maria
June 2002

Now that they had a way to make and show movies, Edison and his assistants needed to produce things to show. In December 1892, the Kinetographic Theater, better known as the Black Maria, was opened in West Orange. Black Maria was a name used for police wagons at that time, and the Kinetographic Theater was a similar tar color.

Only sunlight was strong enough to allow images to be seen on movie film at that time, so the roof of the studio opened to let in sunlight. The entire Black Maria could be rotated to keep it aligned with the sun.

Inside the theater, there was a stage, which was barely 12 square feet. The kinetograph in the studio was very heavy and large, so it always stayed in one spot, pointed in one direction. For closer shots, people moved toward the camera.

In 1893, Edison conducted the first public demonstration of the kinetoscope at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. To Edison's surprise, the public responded in a big way. The first Kinetoscope parlor opened in New York, followed by similar openings all over the country.

The next year, more than 75 films were made in the Black Maria. Each lasted about 20 seconds. All films were silent and in black and white. Dickson and another Edison assistant William Heise were the first cinematographers.

Many different people and actions were filmed at the Black Maria. Segments of vaudeville acts, plays, magic tricks, and dancing were all captured. Many of the famous people of the day including Buffalo Bill, gunslinger Annie Oakley, and strongman Eugene Sandow performed for the camera. Many of Edison's films are still available, and you can view them online.

After a few years, Kinetoscopes began falling out of favor as other inventors had developed movie projectors. Viewers could now see films on a screen instead of by looking in a peephole. Also, smaller, portable cameras were now used. With these two advances, longer films shot in different scenes could be created. The Black Maria was too small to make such films, and it was closed in 1901.

Next: "The Great Train Robbery"

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