Edison in Toronto
Robert's Rare 1912 Edison Home Kinetoscope (left) and 1898 Projecting Kinetoscope (right) were on display.
The following account is an abridged version
of a lecture/slide presentation given to the
CAPS' meeting on October 23, 1998. The
content is taken from a forthcoming book of mine,
Magic Moments: First 20 Years of Moving
1999. The material focuses on those aspects of
Edison's contributions to cinema as they directly
affected the coming of moving pictures to Toronto.
The first moving-picture device connected to
Edison which arrived in Toronto was his "peep-
show" Kinetoscope, a viewing device that allowed
only one person at a time to see a very short film
presented in a cabinet. Visitors to the 1894
Toronto Industrial Fair (now known as the
Canadian National Exhibition) were the first in the
city to have the opportunity of seeing moving
pictures beginning September 3. The Evening
Telegram announced on August 10: "Edison's
latest marvellous invention, the kinetoscope, will
be shown reproducing forms and scenes in motion,
just as the phonograph reproduces the living
voice." Thus, Edison's interest in moving pictures
was directed toward furthering his phonograph
Among other duties, William Kennedy Laurie
Dickson was the official photographer to
Edison's organization and it was logical that
Edison should give him the task of working out his
ideas for sequence photography. After
experimenting with up-to fifty-foot strips of
flexible Eastman film and a new camera, with a
vertical film feed, taking a 35mm-wide film band,
Edison decided on the commercial introduction of
the Kinetoscope in June 1892.
Early in the spring of 1894, ten machines were
shipped across the Hudson River to Andrew
Holland, who, along with his brother George, were
eastern agents of the Kinetoscope
Company (founded by Raff & Gammon).
The ten Kinetoscopes reached them on April 6.
On April 14, they opened the first Kinetoscope parlour at
1155 Broadway, New York City.
Display of rare Edison projectors
The brothers carried out further exploitation
in Toronto after the Industrial Fair by opening a
temporary Kinetoscope parlour commencing
December 10 in Webster's ticket office, located on
the northeast corner of Yonge and King streets.
Webster's was, most likely, chosen because
of its prime site — the business and entertainment heart
of Toronto — and being able to take advantage of
the constant flow of traffickers purchasing
steamship tickets or wishing to send telegrams.
Rumours percolated that Raff & Gammon, the
Kinetoscope representatives, were impatient since
the "peep-show" Kinetoscope business was
dragging and decreasing. The "peep-show" parlor
men were clamoring for a machine that would
project the picture life size on a wall. The
Kinetoscope customers looked to Edison for a
perfected machine. But Edison was still unmoved.
Nothing important had been done at his West
Orange plant toward perfecting a "screen
machine" and it seemed that nothing was going to
After leaving Edison, Dickson soon became a
founder of the K.M.C.D. Syndicate (later to
become The American Mutoscope and Biograph
Company). It planned to develop a peep-show
device that was based on the flip book idea.
Thus, the Mutoscope was born. Much larger pictures
had to be created since, unlike the Kinetoscope,
the Mutoscope card-wheel pictures were to be
viewed by reflected light as in looking at an
ordinary photograph. A greater area was necessary
to compensate for the loss of light. A new camera,
whose mechanism differed from Edison's
Kinetograph camera in order to avoid patent
infringement, was created mainly by Dickson.
The Mutoscope was ready sometime in 1895 —
The coming of the cheaper Mutoscope
promised to wipe out the business of the
cumbersome and costly Kinetoscope. But "Lady
Luck" entered just in time in the form of a
telegram from Thomas Armat of Washington D.C.
in which he promised Raff & Gammon perfected
projection on screen. They were interested but
skeptical. However, after Gammon's visit to
Washington where he witnessed the success of
Armat's projector, they carefully persuaded Edison
to build 80 machines and Armat to allow the
machine to be promoted under the 'Edison' name.
Thus, the so-called 'Edison' Vitascope was
Closeup of the 1912 Edison Home Kinetoscope
Neither Edison nor Armat was especially fond
of the arrangement, but it was accepted by them at
the dictation of Raff as a matter of commercial
expediency. This settlement bought Edison time
to play catch-up with others as he worked to
develop his own projecting apparatus.
Meanwhile, the Vitascope's opening at
Robinson's Musee Theatre, 91 Yonge Street (east
side just north of King Street), August 31, 1896,
gave the Musee the honour of presenting the first
projected moving-pictures to Torontonians.
But only by one day, for the Lumiere
Cinématographe opened the next day at the Industrial Fair. The
first series of films may have included:
SHOOTING THE CHUTES AT CONEY
ISLAND; THE KISS — featuring May Irwin and
John Rice; and THE BLACK DIAMOND
EXPRESS (a locomotive). For certain, exhibited
was La Loie Fuller doing BUTTERFLY DANCE,
one of those serpentine dances; it was the hand-
painted colour version. The Vitascope remained at
Robinson's until October 10.
It was natural enough that it should now in the
autumn of 1896 appear that Edison's only chance
to make money quickly on the motion picture was
as a manufacturer of picture machines, which he
was to sell on the open market rather than tying
them up in territorial agreements as was the
practice of the day. Besides, the business-minded
Edison had control of the camera that produced all
those films that were necessary for an exhibitor
owning one of his machines. In November 1896,
the break between Edison and Raff & Gammon
occurred. Eighty Armat Vitascopes had been
manufactured by Edison and delivered. The time
was right for Edison to introduce his first "screen
machine" — the Edison Projecting Kinetoscope.
This action immediately made a breach between
Raff & Gammon and Edison, and created tension
between Raff & Gammon and Armat, when they
were expected to defend the Vitascope against
Edison's invasion of the projection field. Here
was the beginning of the strife, which made the
motion picture a battle ground for the next twenty
years. There was an ultimate victory far ahead for
Armat, whose fight became one of the incidental
campaigns of the general conflict. Edison further
undercut Raff & Gammon by selling his films for
his own projector at a lower price that Raff &
Gammon were offering to their Vitascope
customers. By the end of 1896, the Vitascope
enterprise, like the "peep-show"
Kinetoscope, was no more.
Inventor Thomas Armat’s Vitalscope from the
October 31, 1896 issue of Scientific American
Edison's first model Projecting Kinetoscope
made its Toronto debut on October 5, at the
Toronto Opera House, 25-27 Adelaide Street west,
south side, a few doors west of the prestigious
Grand Opera House. But it was advertised under
the name "Kinematographe."
The Edison "improved" '97 Model Projecting
Kinetoscope opened January 25, 1897 at
Robinson's establishment, whose name had
changed in November 1896 to Robinson's Bijou
Theatre. This time the machine was announced as
the new Motograph. It was quite possible that
Edison had absolutely nothing to do with the
"Motograph" label for it was quite a common
practice then for the true identity of a projector to
be replaced. For example, the Majestic Theatre
advertised its machine as the "Majestiscope."
At the Bennett theatres, their machine was publicised
as the "Bennettograph."
The next Edison situation involved a film.
PASSION PLAY moving-pictures were presented
free, nightly, in Munro Park, beginning July 9,
1900, for two weeks. Whose version was shown?
Three were produced in the period 1897-98.
I believe that the version at Munro Park was the one
by Rich G. Hollaman and Albert G. Eaves.
Trouble arose when someone leaked word to the
New York Herald, which published the fact that
the Hollaman-Eaves pictures were not taken at
Oberammergau, Germany, but right in New York
City on the roof of the Grand Central Palace
Theatre, December 1897. Edison considered that
the Eden Musee, New York, was using an outlaw
film. The films, to Edison, were obviously
produced with a camera that did not bear the
authority of Edison. Edison had sold no cameras
and never intended to do so.
The case against the Musee appeared to be
definite. In the face of this, Hollaman was
pondering on the problem of putting prints of his
PASSION PLAY on the market. Frank Maguire of
Maguire & Baucus, handlers of Edison films, gave
Hollaman some advice: "If you turn your negative
over to Edison and buy your films from him,it
might be different." Hollaman took the advice,
and further legal action ceased. Many prints were
leased and copies under Edison's name went
abroad, and covered the world of the motion
Jeremiah (Jerry) Shea of Buffalo, New York,
opened his Yonge Street Theatre on September 6,
1899 on the same site as Robinson's Bijou
Theatre. By December 1903, Shea made an
arrangement with the Kinetograph Company,
which did not make its own moving pictures but
rather was dependant upon the good will of
Edison's Kinetograph Department, and really
represented an extension of the Edison company
into the field of exhibition. This agreement stated
that all the Kinetograph Company's
important moving pictures were to be shown in Shea's
theatre before they were sent to any other theatre
in Canada. One such film was by Edwin S. Porter,
an Edison employee who was to make an
important impact on the history of cinema through
his focus on narrative or story films.
His popular film THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY was first
shown in Toronto at Shea's Theatre during the
week of December 14, 1903.
Inventor Model 1897
Starting the week of March 24, 1913 Shea
(who, had since relocated his establishment — now
called the Victoria Theatre — at the northeast
corner of Richmond and Victoria streets) offered
Torontonians an opportunity of experiencing the
new Edison synchronous sound process — the
Kinetophone, after his 1895 invention. The
Toronto World wrote of the films: "The first
picture is a description lecture on the kinetophone.
The lecturer appears in the picture, and, as he
gestures and as his lips move, the words are
distinctly heard. He explains the invention:
"Ladies and gentlemen, a few years ago Thomas
A. Edison presented to the world the Kinetoscope
and today countless millions of people in every
section of the civilized world are enjoying the
Phonograph. It remained for Mr. Edison to
combine two great inventions in one that is now
entertaining you and is called the Kinetophone.
The Edison Kinetophone is absolutely the only
genuine talking picture ever produced."
Examples are given. A man is seated at the piano and plays;
a vocalist approaches and sings 'The Last Rose of
Summer,' and a violinist plays a solo. Barking
dogs are seen and heard. A second reel is shown,
called the Edison minstrels.
How was the Kinetophone apparatus installed
in a theatre, such as Shea's? The phonograph,
placed behind the screen, used a cylinder record
nearly a foot in length and four or five inches in
diameter and a horn and diaphragm considerably
larger than those of home phonographs.
It determined the speed, being connected through a
string belt, to a synchronizing device at the
projector. The belt pulleys were about 3 inches in
diameter. The belt passed from the phonograph up
over idler pulleys, and overhead, back to the
projection booth. The synchronizing device
applied a brake to the projector and the brake-shoe
pressure depended on the relative phase of the
phonograph and projector, increasing rapidly as
the projector got ahead in phase. With an even
force on the projector crank, normal phase relation
was maintained. The projectionist watched for
synchronism and had a slight degree of control by
turning the crank harder if the picture were
behind or easing it off if it were ahead.
Edison's dream finally came true, but he was to
awaken with a sharp jolt. The system that had
worked well in the controlled conditions of the
Edison laboratories or in the Bronx studio,
developed unexpected imperfections when
transferred to the theatre. The Palace, in New
York City, was one of several theatres where the
Kinetophone lost synchronization or broke down
completely. Audiences hissed Edison's talking
pictures off the screen, and Keith-Orpheum paid
the Edison Company to terminate the contract and
withdraw its talking pictures. It did not appear
that such problems occurred during the run at
In the wake of this experience, Edison no
longer considered sound movies worthy of further
improvement or experimentation, and persistently
ridiculed or underrated the efforts of other
inventors to accomplish what he had failed to do
with the Kinetophone.
- John Barnes, The Rise of the Cinema in Great
Britain (Bishopsgate Press Ltd., London,
- Brian Coe, The History of Movie
Photography (Ash & Grant, London, 1981)
- Raymond Fielding, ed., A Technological
History of Motion Pictures and Television
(University of California Press, Berkeley,
- Harry Geduld, The Birth of the Talkies
(Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1975)
- David S. Hulfish, Motion-Picture Work
(American School of Correspondence,
- Peter Morris, Embattled Shadows (McGill-
Queen's University Press, 1978)
- Peter Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights
(Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 1927)
- Various Toronto daily newspapers—Globe,
Mail and Empire, Evening News, Star, Evening
Telegram and Toronto World.