Search Database

Translate this page

  William Kennedy Dickson

William Kennedy Laurie Dickson was born in Brittany, France to English and Scottish parents on August 3, 1860. Little is known about his childhood beyond his his interest in science. In 1879, the 19-year-old contacted American inventor Thomas Edison in search of a job. Unfortunately, Mr. Edison was not hiring any additional personnel at that time, but nevertheless Mr. Dickson immigrated to the United States accompanied by his mother and sisters. Four years later, he again contacted Mr. Edison, and his persistence paid off with a job at the Goerk Street laboratory of Edison Electric Works in New York City. He was quickly promoted to Superintendent, in charge of developing electric power and light systems, and also performed any required photography experiments.

In 1888, Mr. Dickson was moved to the Edison laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, where he began working on motion photography that was inspired by Eadweard James Muybridge's sequential motion photographs of people and animals. In 1888, sequence pictures were transferred on a spiral to a cylinder machine reminiscent of the photograph. This process, however, proved unfeasible, and so Mr. Dickson focused upon developing a new ore-milling machine until an alternative presented itself in the form of George Eastman's celluloid roll film in 1889. This flexible film was thin, durable, and transparent, all of the characteristics Mr. Dickson was seeking. His experiments resumed shortly thereafter resulting in the 1891 completion of a film camera and viewer. The kinetograph camera required perforated 35 mm film, and the kinetoscope or peepshow viewer could run 50 feet of film in a nonstop loop. By 1893, Mr. Edison was mass-producing these viewers, and Mr. Dickson was already working on the kineto-phonograph, which he referred to in an 1895 issue of Cassier's Magazine as the "dual talking machine." Recognizing the historical significance of this innovation, Mr. Dickson declared, "The advantages to students and historians will be immeasurable." Although Thomas Edison claimed credit for the invention of motion picture film and projection, the true mastermind was William Kennedy Dickson. A kinetoscope parlor featuring ten viewers opened in New York on April 14, 1894, and by year's end, such parlors appeared throughout the United States and Europe. International cinema was born.

In April of 1895, Mr. Dickson left the Edison laboratory and collaborated briefly with Woodville Latham on developing a projection variation of the kinetoscope known as the Panoptikon projector. Eight months later, he formed the American Mutoscope Company with Herman Casier, Elias Koopman, and Henry N. Marvin. For this new endeavor, Mr. Dickson constructed a wide-film camera known as the Biograph, with a projector that could show the films on a wide screen. In May 1897, Mr. Dickson went back to England to produce Biograph films that recorded several important historical events including Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebration that year, footage of Pope Leo XIII in 1898, and Boer War battles in 1899 and 1900. Dickson's association with Biograph ended inexplicably in 1911, as did his cinematic innovations. His last years were spent quietly in the English countryside until his death on September 28, 1935 at the age of 75. William Kennedy Dickson lived long enough to see his his kinetoscope invention transformed into talking motion pictures, but sadly was denied recognition for pioneering motion photography in his lifetime.

1996 Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology (London: Routledge), pp. 262-263.

1895 Cassier's Magazine, Vol. VII (New York: The Cassier Magazine World Building), pp. 145-156.

2012 William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (URL:

# 2512
2013-05-11 20:51:25

Return to Previous Page
Return to the History Librarium

Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera