Major Innovators of Early Motion Pictures

Walt Disney looks through a lens at an oversized paintbrush while a man drips paint from a tube

Gene Lester/Getty Images

The first machine patented in the United States that showed animated pictures or movies was a device called the "wheel of life" or "zoopraxiscope." Patented in 1867 by William Lincoln, it allowed moving drawings or photographs to be viewed through a slit in the zoopraxiscope. However, this was a far cry from motion pictures as we know them today.

The Lumière Brothers and the Birth of Motion Pictures

Modern motion picture making began with the invention of the motion picture camera. French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière are often credited with inventing the first motion picture camera, although others had developed similar inventions at around the same time. What the Lumières invented was special, however. It combined a portable motion-picture camera, film processing unit, and a projector called the Cinematographe. It was basically a device with three functions in one.

The Cinematographe made motion pictures very popular. It can even be said that Lumiere's invention gave birth to the motion picture era. In 1895, Lumiere and his brother became the first to demonstrate photographic moving pictures projected onto a screen for a paying audience of more than one person. The audience saw ten 50-second films, including the Lumière brother’s first, Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon).

However, the Lumiere brothers were not the first to project film. In 1891, the Edison company successfully demonstrated the Kinetoscope, which enabled one person at a time to view moving pictures. Later in 1896, Edison showed his improved Vitascope projector, the first commercially successful projector in the U.S.

Here are some of the other key players and milestones in the history of motion pictures:

Eadweard Muybridge

San Francisco photographer Eadweard Muybridge conducted motion-sequence still photographic experiments and is referred to as the "Father of the Motion Picture," even though he did not make films in the manner in which we know them today.

Thomas Edison's Contributions

Thomas Edison's interest in motion pictures began prior to 1888. However, the visit of Eadweard Muybridge to the inventor's laboratory in West Orange in February of that year certainly stimulated Edison's resolve to invent a motion picture camera.

Whereas film equipment has undergone drastic changes throughout the course of history, 35mm film has remained the universally accepted film size. We owe the format to a great extent to Edison. In fact, 35mm film was once called the Edison size.

George Eastman

In 1889, the first commercial transparent roll film, perfected by Eastman and his research chemist, was put on the market. The availability of this flexible film made possible the development of Thomas Edison's motion picture camera in 1891.


Film Colorization was invented by Canadians Wilson Markle and Brian Hunt in 1983. 

Walt Disney

Mickey Mouse's official birthday is November 18, 1928. That's when he made his first film debut in Steamboat Willie. While this was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon released, the first Mickey Mouse Cartoon ever made was Plane Crazy in 1928 and became the third cartoon released. Walt Disney invented Mickey Mouse and the multi-plane camera.

Richard M. Hollingshead

Richard M. Hollingshead patented and opened the first drive-in theater. Park-In Theaters opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey. While drive-in showings of movies took place years earlier, Hollingshead was the first to patent the concept.   

The IMAX Movie System

The IMAX system has its roots in EXPO '67 in Montreal, Canada, where multi-screen films were the hit of the fair. A small group of Canadian filmmakers and entrepreneurs (Graeme Ferguson, Roman Kroitor, and Robert Kerr) who had made some of those popular films decided to design a new system using a single, powerful projector rather than the cumbersome multiple projectors used at that time. To project images of far greater size and with better resolution, the film is run horizontally so that the image width is greater than the width of the film.

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Bellis, Mary. "Major Innovators of Early Motion Pictures." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 29). Major Innovators of Early Motion Pictures. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Major Innovators of Early Motion Pictures." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).