The history of the Biograph

The Biograph story begins in late 1894 when four men – three American and one British – joined forces to develop a peepshow motion picture device called a Mutoscope. The four were Herman Casler, Harry Marvin, Elias Koopman and William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, the latter the British inventor who had invented the world’s first successful motion picture camera and viewer when he was employed by Thomas Edison, and who now was helping to produce a rival to his own invention, the Edison Kinetoscope. Unlike the Kinetoscope, which used film, the Mutoscope used reels of sequential photographic images on cards.

The four formed the KMCD Syndicate which in December 1895 became the American Mutoscope Company and later the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. To produce their films (which could then be turned into flick cards) they produced the gigantic Mutograph camera which employed 68mm wide film, to differentiate the product from Edison’s 35mm film. Biograph films were intended for projection on a screen as well as through the peepshow Mutoscope, and the inaugural film show took place at 12 October 1896 at Hammerstein’s Olympia Music Hall.

Biograph was an instant success, its huge picture, sharp photographic quality and steady image startling audiences worldwide. Biograph made a speciality of films of actuality: travel, sports, news events, railway journeys, war reportage, and world-famous personalities. Many celebrities of the time appeared before the Biograph, wittingly or unwittingly. They included Pope Leo XIII, politicians William McKinley and Li Hung Chang, French victim of injustice Alfred Dreyfus, military heroes Horatio Kitchener, William Dewey and Lord Roberts, actors Joseph Jefferson and Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and monarchs Queen Victoria and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

Biograph films were usually one minute in length, though much longer films were made of some boxing matches. They were gathered together in programmes of twenty minutes or so to be shown in variety theatres and music halls (there were no cinemas in the 1890s). The company gained much prestige for its films of the world, taken from American to China, and from Britain to South Africa, but there was another side to its output. For the peepshow Mutoscope the company produced risqué comedies with such titles such as The Amorous Guardsman, Wicked Willie and Why Marie blew out the light. These suggestive films, with their titillating scenarios, were the cause of much censorious comment, and the Mutoscope gained the popular soubriquet of ‘What the butler saw.’

Biograph expanded overseas, with branches appearing in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, India, the Netherlands and elsewhere. The chief filmmaker was Dickson, who joined the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Other camera operators included Eugène Lauste and his son Emile, Fred Ackerman, Frederick Armitage, Arthur Marvin and Billy Bitzer. In 1902 the American company abandoned 68mm film to concentrate on 35mm production, in line with the rest of the film business. The British company followed suit in 1903, but ceased film production completely soon after. American Biograph continued, finding new success with the director D.W. Griffith, but the large format spectacular films that left audiences awe-struck were no more. It was not until the 1990s that archives and film scholars began to rediscover the amazing legacy of Biograph, and only today with The Biograph Project that we can experience again the film wonder of 1896-1903 in the form in which the world first saw it.