Before the Movie Projector
The earliest antique movie projectors were developed at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Before then, there had actually been moving pictures of various kinds. The problem with producing motion pictures was actually primarily a problem in taking photographs so quickly. Even the earliest motion pictures, using ten frames per second, required the ability to take photographs at a very quick pace. Given that the Nineteenth Century was still the era when people needed to sit still for a photograph for over a minute.
The first moving pictures actually used multiple cameras to create photographs that were very close together in time. The famous photos of “Sallie Gardner”, the hose, were created using just this method. The cameras fired off very close to one another, and then the photographs were run together very quickly, creating the appearance of motion.
The first true single movie camera was that developed by William Friese-Green in 1889. It took ten frames of film per second, and he called it a “chronophotographic” camera. This camera was largely unsuccessful commercially, but filmed ten frames per second and printed onto cellulite, the first camera to do so. At the same time, Thomas Edison was developing what he called the “Kinetoscope”, which created images at twelve frames per second. Edison eventually was able to increase this rate to 46 frames per second, but noted that the human eye was not able to discern speeds above 30, so most early kinetoscope films were at this rate.
Note, however, that no one had actually yet developed an antique movie projector. The earliest motion pictures were images that were flipped or cycled very quickly, creating the illusion of motion. One looked directly at the moving image, not its projection. However, with the cameras and basic structure now complete, vintage movie projectors became the norm.
Antique Movie Projectors
The earliest movie sizes were usually 35mm movies, a size that would not be surpassed until the 1960s and 1970s when film sizes reached 70mm (and then shrank again). In 1895, only a few years after its creation, the novelty of the Kinetoscope had started to wear off. In both France and the United States, movie projection systems began to arise. In France, the “cinematographe” was created by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis. Simultaneously, Edison created what he called his “projecting Kinetoscope”, capitalizing on his old brand name.
These antique projector systems worked in largely the same way. Each set up a 35mm camera, which took images that were then placed on a 35mm movie reel. Holes were placed on the sides of these reels (though the Lumières and Edison put them in different places). They were then run in front of a bulb on one side and a shutter on the other, so the image only appeared when it was in line with the center of the bulb. This projected the image onto the screen, which could be made far larger than the earlier Kinetoscopes or flipbook Mutoscopes that were beginning to cut into Edison’s market.
In fact, the very first sound movie equipment was developed by 1903, not in the late 1920s, as is often believed. Edison developed what he called a “kinetophone”, which ran a phonograph in tandem with the movie projection system. Unfortunately, these were hard to make commercial, because the projectors were difficult to run, and when there was a massive fire at the Edison factory in 1914, all of the equipment was destroyed. At that point, Edison abandoned the project entirely.
Finding Old Movie Projectors
Most true antique movie projectors are now found in museums, as they are extremely rare. However, this does not mean that there is not a commercial market for them. Most antique movie projectors can be found in good condition, as they have never been left to rot in a garage somewhere like many vintage goods. However, this comes with a corresponding expensive price, as you will never find one at a bargain somewhere (and if you do, it may be stolen, so be careful).
As a result, do not expect to find antique movie projectors on Ebay (though it may happen from time to time). Instead, you should look for these items at places like Susanin’s auctions and other, high-end auction houses. If you cannot find one in your area, most of these auction houses have a system such that their products can reach your shipping address at added cost. There are a number of collectors of antique movie projectors, and finding some of the earlies specimens is quite an accomplishment.