March 22, 2023

The Lumière Brothers Screen The First Motion Picture

The Lumière Brothers Screen The First Motion Picture

March 22, 1895. In Paris, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière demonstrate motion picture technology for the first time.


Cold Open

It’s January 1896 in Paris, France.

A young woman walks arm-in-arm with her husband down a crowded boulevard. They are on their way to the Grand Café, where a marvelous spectacle is scheduled to take place. This afternoon, renowned pioneers of photographical equipment, Auguste and Louis Lumière, are showcasing their latest invention: the Cinématographe, an ingenious contraption that somehow captures moving images and projects them onto a screen.

The young couple excitedly steps inside the Grand Café and walks across the marble lobby.

They pass through an inconspicuous door and descend a long flight of stairs to the basement. Here, in a small exhibition space, the Lumière brothers are demonstrating their invention to paying members of the public.

The young woman looks around at the excited clientele but struggles to share their anticipation. This isn’t the first public showcase of the Lumières’ invention - that took place a few weeks ago. It created an immediate buzz around Paris, with the next morning’s newspapers full of rave reviews about the arrival of a bright new dawn for human ingenuity. But still, the young woman remains skeptical. To her mind, images on a screen will never replicate real life. The fact that these are moving images sounds to her like a childish gimmick…

But then... a hush descends over the audience as the gas lamps are dimmed.

A beam of light projects the title onto a screen: The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Suddenly, a different image appears, one of passengers standing on a train platform. Except, the people in the image appear to be alive. The young woman leans forward in her seat, captivated, as a train looms into view at the top of the picture. Her jaw drops as the train thunders toward the audience, and it seems as if it will jump from the screen and crash right into them. The young woman covers her face in panic. But when she lowers her hands, the film is over. The platform, train, and passengers have all gone, replaced once again by a blank screen.

The young woman joins the rest of the audience in a round of applause, still reeling from having just witnessed an incredible marvel.

During the latter years of the 19th century, inventors the world over became obsessed with the challenge of capturing moving images on film. Many succeeded in developing machines that could capture and play back motion pictures - but they all came with drawbacks: their devices could only be viewed by one individual at a time, or they relied on stop-motion animation to create the illusion of moving images. 

But in the 1890s, two French manufacturers of photographic equipment, brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere, released their Cinématographe - a hand-held film recorder and projector. For the first time in history, motion pictures could be displayed to an audience on a big screen. And their innovation will lead to the birth of the motion picture industry after its unveiling amazes the Lumieres’ first audience on March 22nd, 1895.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is March 22nd, 1895: The Lumière Brothers Screen The First Motion Picture.

Act One: The Kinetoscope

It’s July 16th, 1894 in Paris.

A plump fifty-four-year-old man with a white handlebar mustache enters the offices of Le Petit Parisien, a popular daily newspaper.

Antoine Lumiere is the owner of a factory in Lyon that produces photography equipment. Following the invention of primitive photographic techniques in the 1830s, commercial photography has boomed. As the processes became simpler and more affordable, the industry grew tenfold. Such was the demand for camera equipment that Antoine enlisted the services of his two sons, Auguste and Louis, to help manage the factory, and the two young men took to the business like ducks to water.

Recently, Louis developed an innovative new type of “dry” photographic plate. Unlike previous “wet” plates, the dry version is coated with a special chemical emulsion that means the plates don’t need to be developed immediately. This allows the photographer to travel further from the studio - and thus take more interesting photographs. The new plates were an immediate sensation and helped the Lumieres’ factory become one of the biggest and most lucrative suppliers of photographic equipment in Europe.

But for all their success, the Lumieres can’t afford to rest on their laurels. They must always keep a close eye on new trends in the industry, ensuring they don’t fall behind their competitors. And that’s why Antoine is in Paris today. He has come to witness what many are calling the next great innovation in photography. The “kinetoscope” was created by the American inventor, Thomas Edison. It’s a small wooden box in which a strip of film, 35 mm wide, is fed rapidly between a lens and an electric light bulb. When viewed through a spinning shutter, the images on the strip of film appear to be moving.

Edison’s kinetoscope caused a sensation when it was first publicly exhibited in New York last year. Since then, numerous “kinetoscope parlors” opened across the United States, where customers can pay a dime to look through the peephole and marvel at the motion picture unfolding within. But today is the kinetoscope’s first public demonstration in Europe, taking place at the offices of this daily Parisian newspaper. When Antoine learned about the unveiling, he knew he had to be there to see the kinetoscope in the flesh.

Several of the curious machines have been set up inside the offices, and the spectators are invited to try them out. Antoine approaches tentatively and stoops down to look through the machine’s peephole. He like many others gasps as a remarkably life-like scene plays out before his eyes; a tiny, smartly-dressed man bows, smiles, and removes his hat. It only lasts three seconds, but Antoine is stunned. 

Catching the next train home to Lyon, Antoine rushes straight to his factory. He bursts into the office and tells Auguste and Louis that he has just witnessed something incredible: Thomas Edison has invented a machine that uses simple photographic techniques to project moving images. It’s an ingenious device - but it’s not perfect; the images can only be viewed by one spectator at a time. Antoine’s eyes flash with excitement as he explains to his sons that if they can invent a machine that captures, records, and projects motion pictures to a larger audience, they will have invented the future of popular entertainment.

Auguste and Louis exchange a glance. It’s typical of their father to get over-excited about certain fads in the photography industry. But they must admit: this kinetoscope sounds impressive, and the commercial possibilities of projection are interesting, to say the least. And so, Auguste and Louis get to work on an invention of their own.

The Lumiere brothers begin by identifying the problems with the kinetoscope and seeking to improve upon it. Like Edison’s machine, they begin by passing a perforated, 35-mm strip of film through a shutter. But they feed the film through the shutter intermittently and more slowly, ensuring the images appear sharper and move more fluidly on screen. They add better illumination, and a hand-crank to power the contraption. They also make their machine lightweight, portable, and easy to use. And soon, they have completed their first prototype.

But the Lumieres are not alone in their desire to create the first device capable of projecting motion pictures to a wide audience. Another inventor, Leon Bouly, has been working on a machine of his own. But years of tinkering without progress have left Leon in dire financial straits, and by the time he’s ready to apply for a patent of his own, Leon cannot afford the fees. So, in 1895, he sells the name of his device, the “cinématographe”, to the Lumiere brothers, who apply the name to their own invention.

Within months, Auguste and Louis will be ready to unveil their invention. They will arrange a private screening at the Society for the Development of National Industry in Paris, where the brothers will exhibit a forty-six-second-long motion picture for an audience of ten people - and introduce the world to a night at the movies.

Act Two: The Cinématographe

It’s March 22nd, 1895 at the Society for the Development of National Industry in Paris.

Louis Lumiere stands at the back of a small, packed room. His brother, Auguste, is giving a brief presentation on the science behind the Cinématographe to an audience of leading dignitaries in the photography industry. Louis listens as his brother describes how they improved upon existing technology to build their device, and how the invention of motion picture projection will usher in a new, exciting chapter for the industry.

When Auguste finishes speaking, he turns out the gas lamps, plunging the audience into darkness. Louis then begins turning the hand-crank on the Cinématographe and a beam of light cuts through the gloom. The title of their movie appears on screen: “Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon”. As the title suggests, the film features the Lumieres’ employees leaving the factory after a day’s work. Some of the workers are riding bicycles, and at the end of the film, a carriage drawn by two horses passes through the frame. After forty-six seconds, the movie ends abruptly. Louis releases the hand-crank and Auguste raises the lights. There’s a brief pause as the audience absorbs what they’ve just witnessed. Then the room erupts into rapturous applause.

The Lumieres’ film is the first motion picture projected to an audience. But despite the significance of the occasion, there is another, more important milestone for the brothers to reach: the first public demonstration of their machine. That is a more nerve-wracking prospect by far because the reaction of the press and the public will determine the future of the Cinématographe as a commercial product.

Auguste and Louis spend the next nine months shooting short films. They record blacksmiths hammering an anvil, a group of boys jumping into the sea from a jetty, and a man riding a horse. Most of their films rely on the novelty of the moving images alone to create entertainment value. But they also venture into narrative filmmaking. In the spring, they shoot a 45-second movie entitled “The Gardener.” In it, a man is watering flowers when a mischievous boy stands on the hose, blocking the flow. When the puzzled gardener inspects the nozzle, the boy lifts his foot, and the gardener is drenched by the spray. With this short picture, the Lumiere brothers have created the first-ever slapstick comedy film.

By December of 1895, Auguste and Louis have shot more than ten short films. But although the Cinématographe is ready for its first public demonstration, the Lumiere brothers remain hesitant. In their minds, the Cinématographe will never be anything more than a gimmick, and they don’t want to damage their reputations as serious scientific pioneers by being associated with a useless toy.

But their father, Antoine, feels differently. He witnessed the kind of buzz generated by Edison’s kinetoscope, and he believes there is money to be made from his sons’ revolutionary invention. And so, at Antoine’s insistence, a date is set for the public unveiling of the Cinématographe. A room is booked and tickets are put on sale, and on December 22nd, in a salon beneath the Cafe Grand in Paris, the first-ever public screening of a motion picture takes place. The Lumiere brothers present a selection of ten features - all fewer than sixty seconds long. Every film elicits murmurs of amazement from the crowd, but “The Gardener”, the slapstick comedy, produces the best reaction of all. By the end of that short picture, the audience is bent over with laughter.

And when the screening finishes, pandemonium breaks out. Louis and Auguste are swarmed by flabbergasted movie-goers, reaching out to shake the brothers’ hands and asking how they achieved this astonishing feat. The following day, newspapers in Paris are filled with rave reviews announcing the dawn of a new era, one in which humankind now has the power to “record and play back life!

In 1896, the Lumieres open Cinématographe theaters in London, Brussels, and New York City. The screenings feature snapshots of everyday life: a baby being fed, a child looking at a goldfish bowl, and pedestrians strolling through a town square. Encouraged by the public’s responses, Auguste and Louis begin training camera operators and sending them around the world to capture footage of Central American jungles, North African deserts, and Russian snowfields.

Audiences are captivated. But despite the popularity of their Cinématographe, the Lumiere brothers still aren’t satisfied. As the twentieth-century approaches, they will turn their attention to something they believe is photography's Holy Grail. They have already captured the world in motion; and soon, it will be time for audiences to witness the world in color.

Act Three: Autochrome Lumiere

It’s 1904 at the Academy of Sciences in Paris; nine years after the Lumiere brothers publicly demonstrated motion picture technology.

Before a panel of the academy's directors, Auguste and Louis demonstrate a new process that they have been working on ever since their invention of the Cinématographe - the process of creating commercially viable colorized photographs.

Since the invention of black-and-white photography, colorization has been considered the next frontier by many in the industry. In 1855, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell suggested a process for color photography based on the principle that light is composed of three primary colors: red, green, and blue. Maxwell proposed that a photograph taken through separate filters - one red, one green, and one blue - might reproduce the same color-perception process that happens in the human eye.

Maxwell’s process worked, but it was costly, complex and the colors were dull. More recently, a physicist named Gabriel Lippmann invented a more affordable and effective technique by using “plates” coated in a chemical resin. Lippmann’s plates will earn him a Nobel Prize in Physics. But his process, though ingenious, is time-consuming and remains complicated. There is still a gap in the market for a commercially viable process of photo colorization. And the Lumiere brothers believe they have come up with the solution. 

Their invention, which they have called the Autochrome Lumiere, also involves glass plates. But unlike Lippmann’s, their plates are coated with a fine wash of potato starch grains dyed red, green, and blue. When the slide is exposed to light in the camera, the colored starch is impressed onto the film and produces an image in real-life hues.

The process impresses the academy’s directors, and the brothers secure a patent for their invention. Three years later, Autochrome Lumiere plates become available to the public. And the people's reception is emphatic. After testing out the easy-to-use and affordable plates, eminent American photographer Alfred Stieglitz writes: “The possibility of the process seems to be unlimited and soon the world will be color-mad, and the Lumiere brothers are responsible.”

But because color photographs need a longer exposure time than black-and-white photographs, it isn’t yet possible to record moving images with the Autochrome process; audiences will have to wait until the 1930s before movies are produced in glorious Technicolor. By that time, the Lumiere brothers will have entered old age and faded from prominence, but their names will always be associated with the birth of modern cinema, which many claim was when Auguste and Louis Lumiere first demonstrated their Cinématographe to an audience on March 22nd, 1895.


Next on History Daily. March 23rd, 1806. After completing the first U.S. overland expedition to the Pacific Ocean, explorers Lewis and Clark begin their return to Missouri.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.

Sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.