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Edison in Toronto
Robert's Rare 1912 Edison Home Kinetoscope (left) and 1898 Projecting Kinetoscope (right) were on display.

The following account is an abridged version of a lecture/slide presentation given to the CAPS' meeting on October 23, 1998. The content is taken from a forthcoming book of mine, Magic Moments: First 20 Years of Moving 1999. The material focuses on those aspects of Edison's contributions to cinema as they directly affected the coming of moving pictures to Toronto.

The first moving-picture device connected to Edison which arrived in Toronto was his "peep- show" Kinetoscope, a viewing device that allowed only one person at a time to see a very short film presented in a cabinet. Visitors to the 1894 Toronto Industrial Fair (now known as the Canadian National Exhibition) were the first in the city to have the opportunity of seeing moving pictures beginning September 3. The Evening Telegram announced on August 10: "Edison's latest marvellous invention, the kinetoscope, will be shown reproducing forms and scenes in motion, just as the phonograph reproduces the living voice." Thus, Edison's interest in moving pictures was directed toward furthering his phonograph machine.

Among other duties, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson was the official photographer to Edison's organization and it was logical that Edison should give him the task of working out his ideas for sequence photography. After experimenting with up-to fifty-foot strips of flexible Eastman film and a new camera, with a vertical film feed, taking a 35mm-wide film band, Edison decided on the commercial introduction of the Kinetoscope in June 1892.

Early in the spring of 1894, ten machines were shipped across the Hudson River to Andrew Holland, who, along with his brother George, were eastern agents of the Kinetoscope Company (founded by Raff & Gammon). The ten Kinetoscopes reached them on April 6. On April 14, they opened the first Kinetoscope parlour at 1155 Broadway, New York City.

Display of rare Edison projectors

The brothers carried out further exploitation in Toronto after the Industrial Fair by opening a temporary Kinetoscope parlour commencing December 10 in Webster's ticket office, located on the northeast corner of Yonge and King streets. Webster's was, most likely, chosen because of its prime site — the business and entertainment heart of Toronto — and being able to take advantage of the constant flow of traffickers purchasing steamship tickets or wishing to send telegrams.

Rumours percolated that Raff & Gammon, the Kinetoscope representatives, were impatient since the "peep-show" Kinetoscope business was dragging and decreasing. The "peep-show" parlor men were clamoring for a machine that would project the picture life size on a wall. The Kinetoscope customers looked to Edison for a perfected machine. But Edison was still unmoved. Nothing important had been done at his West Orange plant toward perfecting a "screen machine" and it seemed that nothing was going to be done.

After leaving Edison, Dickson soon became a founder of the K.M.C.D. Syndicate (later to become The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company). It planned to develop a peep-show device that was based on the flip book idea. Thus, the Mutoscope was born. Much larger pictures had to be created since, unlike the Kinetoscope, the Mutoscope card-wheel pictures were to be viewed by reflected light as in looking at an ordinary photograph. A greater area was necessary to compensate for the loss of light. A new camera, whose mechanism differed from Edison's Kinetograph camera in order to avoid patent infringement, was created mainly by Dickson. The Mutoscope was ready sometime in 1895 — likely September.

The coming of the cheaper Mutoscope promised to wipe out the business of the cumbersome and costly Kinetoscope. But "Lady Luck" entered just in time in the form of a telegram from Thomas Armat of Washington D.C. in which he promised Raff & Gammon perfected projection on screen. They were interested but skeptical. However, after Gammon's visit to Washington where he witnessed the success of Armat's projector, they carefully persuaded Edison to build 80 machines and Armat to allow the machine to be promoted under the 'Edison' name. Thus, the so-called 'Edison' Vitascope was launched.

Closeup of the 1912 Edison Home Kinetoscope

Neither Edison nor Armat was especially fond of the arrangement, but it was accepted by them at the dictation of Raff as a matter of commercial expediency. This settlement bought Edison time to play catch-up with others as he worked to develop his own projecting apparatus. Meanwhile, the Vitascope's opening at Robinson's Musee Theatre, 91 Yonge Street (east side just north of King Street), August 31, 1896, gave the Musee the honour of presenting the first projected moving-pictures to Torontonians. But only by one day, for the Lumiere Cinématographe opened the next day at the Industrial Fair. The first series of films may have included: SHOOTING THE CHUTES AT CONEY ISLAND; THE KISS — featuring May Irwin and John Rice; and THE BLACK DIAMOND EXPRESS (a locomotive). For certain, exhibited was La Loie Fuller doing BUTTERFLY DANCE, one of those serpentine dances; it was the hand- painted colour version. The Vitascope remained at Robinson's until October 10.

It was natural enough that it should now in the autumn of 1896 appear that Edison's only chance to make money quickly on the motion picture was as a manufacturer of picture machines, which he was to sell on the open market rather than tying them up in territorial agreements as was the practice of the day. Besides, the business-minded Edison had control of the camera that produced all those films that were necessary for an exhibitor owning one of his machines. In November 1896, the break between Edison and Raff & Gammon occurred. Eighty Armat Vitascopes had been manufactured by Edison and delivered. The time was right for Edison to introduce his first "screen machine" — the Edison Projecting Kinetoscope. This action immediately made a breach between Raff & Gammon and Edison, and created tension between Raff & Gammon and Armat, when they were expected to defend the Vitascope against Edison's invasion of the projection field. Here was the beginning of the strife, which made the motion picture a battle ground for the next twenty years. There was an ultimate victory far ahead for Armat, whose fight became one of the incidental campaigns of the general conflict. Edison further undercut Raff & Gammon by selling his films for his own projector at a lower price that Raff & Gammon were offering to their Vitascope customers. By the end of 1896, the Vitascope enterprise, like the "peep-show" Kinetoscope, was no more.

Inventor Thomas Armat’s Vitalscope from the October 31, 1896 issue of Scientific American

Edison's first model Projecting Kinetoscope made its Toronto debut on October 5, at the Toronto Opera House, 25-27 Adelaide Street west, south side, a few doors west of the prestigious Grand Opera House. But it was advertised under the name "Kinematographe."

The Edison "improved" '97 Model Projecting Kinetoscope opened January 25, 1897 at Robinson's establishment, whose name had changed in November 1896 to Robinson's Bijou Theatre. This time the machine was announced as the new Motograph. It was quite possible that Edison had absolutely nothing to do with the "Motograph" label for it was quite a common practice then for the true identity of a projector to be replaced. For example, the Majestic Theatre advertised its machine as the "Majestiscope." At the Bennett theatres, their machine was publicised as the "Bennettograph."

The next Edison situation involved a film. PASSION PLAY moving-pictures were presented free, nightly, in Munro Park, beginning July 9, 1900, for two weeks. Whose version was shown? Three were produced in the period 1897-98. I believe that the version at Munro Park was the one by Rich G. Hollaman and Albert G. Eaves. Trouble arose when someone leaked word to the New York Herald, which published the fact that the Hollaman-Eaves pictures were not taken at Oberammergau, Germany, but right in New York City on the roof of the Grand Central Palace Theatre, December 1897. Edison considered that the Eden Musee, New York, was using an outlaw film. The films, to Edison, were obviously produced with a camera that did not bear the authority of Edison. Edison had sold no cameras and never intended to do so.

The case against the Musee appeared to be definite. In the face of this, Hollaman was pondering on the problem of putting prints of his PASSION PLAY on the market. Frank Maguire of Maguire & Baucus, handlers of Edison films, gave Hollaman some advice: "If you turn your negative over to Edison and buy your films from him,it might be different." Hollaman took the advice, and further legal action ceased. Many prints were leased and copies under Edison's name went abroad, and covered the world of the motion picture.

Jeremiah (Jerry) Shea of Buffalo, New York, opened his Yonge Street Theatre on September 6, 1899 on the same site as Robinson's Bijou Theatre. By December 1903, Shea made an arrangement with the Kinetograph Company, which did not make its own moving pictures but rather was dependant upon the good will of Edison's Kinetograph Department, and really represented an extension of the Edison company into the field of exhibition. This agreement stated that all the Kinetograph Company's important moving pictures were to be shown in Shea's theatre before they were sent to any other theatre in Canada. One such film was by Edwin S. Porter, an Edison employee who was to make an important impact on the history of cinema through his focus on narrative or story films. His popular film THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY was first shown in Toronto at Shea's Theatre during the week of December 14, 1903.

Inventor Model 1897 Edison Projecting Kinetoscope

Starting the week of March 24, 1913 Shea (who, had since relocated his establishment — now called the Victoria Theatre — at the northeast corner of Richmond and Victoria streets) offered Torontonians an opportunity of experiencing the new Edison synchronous sound process — the Kinetophone, after his 1895 invention. The Toronto World wrote of the films: "The first picture is a description lecture on the kinetophone. The lecturer appears in the picture, and, as he gestures and as his lips move, the words are distinctly heard. He explains the invention: "Ladies and gentlemen, a few years ago Thomas A. Edison presented to the world the Kinetoscope and today countless millions of people in every section of the civilized world are enjoying the Phonograph. It remained for Mr. Edison to combine two great inventions in one that is now entertaining you and is called the Kinetophone. The Edison Kinetophone is absolutely the only genuine talking picture ever produced." Examples are given. A man is seated at the piano and plays; a vocalist approaches and sings 'The Last Rose of Summer,' and a violinist plays a solo. Barking dogs are seen and heard. A second reel is shown, called the Edison minstrels.

How was the Kinetophone apparatus installed in a theatre, such as Shea's? The phonograph, placed behind the screen, used a cylinder record nearly a foot in length and four or five inches in diameter and a horn and diaphragm considerably larger than those of home phonographs. It determined the speed, being connected through a string belt, to a synchronizing device at the projector. The belt pulleys were about 3 inches in diameter. The belt passed from the phonograph up over idler pulleys, and overhead, back to the projection booth. The synchronizing device applied a brake to the projector and the brake-shoe pressure depended on the relative phase of the phonograph and projector, increasing rapidly as the projector got ahead in phase. With an even force on the projector crank, normal phase relation was maintained. The projectionist watched for synchronism and had a slight degree of control by turning the crank harder if the picture were behind or easing it off if it were ahead. Edison's dream finally came true, but he was to awaken with a sharp jolt. The system that had worked well in the controlled conditions of the Edison laboratories or in the Bronx studio, developed unexpected imperfections when transferred to the theatre. The Palace, in New York City, was one of several theatres where the Kinetophone lost synchronization or broke down completely. Audiences hissed Edison's talking pictures off the screen, and Keith-Orpheum paid the Edison Company to terminate the contract and withdraw its talking pictures. It did not appear that such problems occurred during the run at Shea's Victoria.

In the wake of this experience, Edison no longer considered sound movies worthy of further improvement or experimentation, and persistently ridiculed or underrated the efforts of other inventors to accomplish what he had failed to do with the Kinetophone.


  1. John Barnes, The Rise of the Cinema in Great Britain (Bishopsgate Press Ltd., London, 1983)
  2. Brian Coe, The History of Movie Photography (Ash & Grant, London, 1981)
  3. Raymond Fielding, ed., A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1974)
  4. Harry Geduld, The Birth of the Talkies (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1975)
  5. David S. Hulfish, Motion-Picture Work (American School of Correspondence, Chicago, 1913)
  6. Peter Morris, Embattled Shadows (McGill- Queen's University Press, 1978)
  7. Peter Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights (Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1927)
  8. Various Toronto daily newspapers—Globe, Mail and Empire, Evening News, Star, Evening Telegram and Toronto World.