On April 21, 1895, Woodville Latham and his sons, Otway and Gray, demonstrate their “Panopticon,” the first movie projector developed in the United States.
Although motion pictures had been shown in the United States for several years using Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, the films could only be viewed one at a time in a peep-show box, not projected to a large audience. Brothers Grey and Otway Latham, the founders of a company that produced and exhibited films of prize fights using the Kinetoscope, called on their father, Woodville, and W.K.L. Dickson, an assistant in the Edison Laboratory, to help them develop a device that would project life-sized images onto a screen in order to attract larger audiences.
A former Confederate officer during the American Civil War, Woodville Latham was also a chemistry professor at the University of West Virginia for a time. Together with Dickson and another former Edison employee, Eugene Lauste, Woodville came up with the so-called “Latham Loop”–a loop that was placed in the strip of film just before it entered the gate of the camera so that the projector could quickly pause to display the image and then advance the film, without pulling directly on the film strip and risking a tear. That simple innovation allowed the Lathams to film long sequences, such as an entire prize fight, on one strip of film. This was a major improvement over the Kinetoscope, whose jerky motion had tended to tear any strip of film measuring over 100 feet.
“Pantopticon Rivals the Kinetoscope” read the headline over a small report in the New York Times on April 22, 1895. “Prof. Woodville Latham yesterday gave a private exhibition of the workings of what he calls a Panopticon, which is a combination of the kinetoscope and stereopticon, at 35 Frankfort Street. The effect is precisely like that of a kinetoscope, only that the pictures are much larger, and can be seen by a large number of people assembled in the darkened room.” That June, the elder Latham officially filed a request for a patent for his “Projecting-Kinetoscope”.
Inspired by a Kinetoscope exhibition in Paris, another pair of brothers, the Frenchmen Auguste and Louis Lumière, would invent their own motion-picture projector, the cinematographe, by the end of 1895. Projected movies were first shown to paying audiences starting the following year, usually as part of a vaudeville show. The first theater devoted solely to projected movies, the Electric Theater in Los Angeles, opened in 1902. Less than a year after the Lathams’ demonstration, Thomas Armat used a method similar to the Latham Loop to develop a state-of-the art projector he would sell to Edison, who marketed the machine as the Vitascope. Even in present day Hollywood, versions of the famous loop can be found in every motion-picture film camera and projector.
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