William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson (1860-1935) is a key figure in the practical development of cinematography. He was born in France of English-Scottish parents, and emigrated to the United States in 1879. Joining Thomas Edison in 1883, he quickly rose to become one of his senior associates. Work on motion pictures began in 1888, and continued – with many interruptions – for several years. Dickson and his assistants were influenced in their perception of the problem and its solution by the ideas of Edison himself, and sequence photographers Eadweard Muybridge, Ottomar Anschütz, and particularly French medical researcher E-J. Marey, whom Edison visited in Paris in August 1889. After experiments involving microphotographs, a Tachyscope and a horizontal-feed camera, the final form of a vertically-fed, 35mm camera utilising celluloid strips with a double row of perforations, had been reached by October 1892. The famous Edison ‘Black Maria’ revolving film studio was designed by Dickson, and had been completed by February 1893, but work on the viewing device – the Kinetoscope – delayed the start of regular film production until January 1894. A wide variety of subjects, many featuring athletes and popular entertainers, was produced at this studio.
The first Kinetoscope parlour was opened in New York in April 1894, and by the end of the year news of the machine had spread throughout the world. Although crude in both appearance and effect, it was a successful and practical device, and it provided the inspiration for many later attempts to achieve film projection. By 1894 Dickson had reached the height of his reputation with Edison, and in that year he and his sister wrote a biography of Edison in which they discussed and illustrated the early film work at West Orange. But this same year also marked the time when Dickson’s loyalty to his employer was compromised as he became covertly involved with a rival film enterprise led by the Latham family. W.E. Gilmore, Edison’s newly appointed general manager, discovered this deception and reported it to Edison. Perhaps overconfident of the security of his position, Dickson challenged Edison to choose between retaining Gilmore or himself. The result was that he left West Orange at the beginning of April 1895. It was a rather sad end to an often brilliant career, and he never subsequently regained the prestige he had enjoyed there.
Working with the Lathams proved to be uncongenial – they had little money and Dickson soon found that the hedonistic lifestyle of the Latham brothers was not to his taste. He therefore turned his attention to development work for the KMCD group (Koopman, Marvin, Casler, Dickson) which he and three friends had set up at the end of 1894. This eventually became the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, and a formidable rival to Edison’s own film interests. Dickson took charge of film production. During 1896 and the early part of 1897 he filmed in various parts of the United States, and in May 1897 came to England to take up an appointment as technical manager and cameraman for the newly-formed British Mutoscope and Biograph Company.
Using London as his base, he travelled widely throughout Britain and Europe providing a steady stream of product for the British company and the international Biograph group. In October 1899 he went to South Africa to cover the Boer War, and despite many difficulties and dangers managed to obtain a number of successful scenes of war damage, troop movements and camp life. His account of the campaign was published on his return to England as The Biograph in Battle. It is a unique and valuable account, the first book published by a film cameraman, and of exceptional interest and veracity from having been compiled on the spot while the events it records were taking place. Dickson left British Biograph about 1903 and by 1906 had established himself in London as an electrical engineer. Dickson died in Twickenham, London on 28 September 1935. He was twice married and had one (adopted) son.
Richard Brown, adapted from Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, with permission.
Image shows the KCMD group – L-R top, W.K-L. Dickson, Herman Casler; bottom, Harry Marvin, Elias Koopman