Auguste and Louis Lumière invented a camera that could record, develop, and project film, but they regarded their creation as little more than a curious novelty. Shortly after the public premiere of their film, Louis was said to have remarked: “Le cinéma est une invention sans avenir—Cinema is an invention without a future.” (See also: Explore your favorite movie worlds through beautiful, hand-painted maps.)
This prediction was the Lumières only scientific miscalculation, for this sibling pair created an unprecedented form of art and entertainment that radically influenced popular culture. Their Cinématographe introduced a crucial innovation: By projecting moving images onto a large screen, it created a new, shared experience of cinema. The first "movies" were born.
A family tradition
In 1870, as France reeled from invasion in the Franco-Prussian war, Antoine Lumière moved his family from the hazardous eastern border of the country to the city of Lyon. A portrait painter and award-winning photographer, he opened a small business in photographic plates in his new home.
Two of Antoine’s sons, Auguste and Louis, grew up immersed in and fascinated by their father’s trade. In 1881, the 17-year-old Louis began taking a particular interest in the photographic plates that their father manufactured.
Chemists had already introduced a new type of “dry” photographic plate that was coated with a chemical emulsion. Unlike previous “wet” photo graphic plates, these did not need to be developed immediately, freeing the photographer to travel farther from his darkroom. Louis improved upon the dry plate technology, and his success with what became known as the “blue plate” prompted the opening of a new factory on the outskirts of Lyon. By the mid1890s the Lumière family was running Europe’s largest photographic factory. (See also: These beautiful antique photos were made with potato starch.)
Pioneers in motion
In 1894 Antoine attended a Paris exhibition of Thomas Edison and William Dickson’s Kinetoscope, a film-viewing device often referred to as the first movie projector. However, the Kinetoscope could show a motion picture to only one person at a time. The individual viewer had to watch through a peephole; Antoine wondered if it were possible to develop a device that could project film onto a screen for an audience. When he returned home from Paris, Antoine encouraged his sons to begin working on a new invention.
One year later, the brothers had succeeded, and the Lumière Cinématographe was patented. With its perforated, 35mm-wide film that passed through a shutter at 16 frames per second, the hand-cranked Cinématographe established modern standard film specifications. Similar to the mechanics of a sewing machine, the Cinématographe threads the film intermittently and more slowly than the Kinetoscope’s 46 frames per second, creating a quieter machine and one that made the images appear to move more fluidly on screen. In addition to expanding Edison’s one-person peephole view to an audience, the Cinématographe was also lighter and portable. The bulk of the Kinetoscope meant that films could only be shot in a studio, but the Lumières’ invention offered operators the freedom and spontaneity to record candid foot age beyond a studio’s walls.
The bigger picture
The Lumières held the world’s first public movie screening on December 28, 1895, at the Grand Café in Paris. Their directorial debut was La sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). While today this premiere would be considered rather prosaic viewing—as its title suggests, the movie simply showed workers leaving the Lumière factory—the clarity and realism of the black-and-white, 50-second film created a sensation.
Describing the streetlife scenes that appeared on the screen before him, Georges Méliès, the renowned magician and director of the Théâtre Robert Houdin in Paris, remarked, “We stared flabbergasted at this sight, stupefied and surprised beyond all expression. At the end of the show there was complete chaos. Everyone wondered how such a result was obtained.’’ Legend has it that when audiences viewed the Lumières’ film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station in 1896, the sight of the approaching train sent viewers running away in terror. In such lore lives truth, however, and the legend echoes Méliès’s reaction: A moving picture was a shock to the senses, revolutionary to behold.
A legacy of light
In 1896 the Lumières opened Cinématographe theaters in London, England; Brussels, Belgium; and New York City, showing the more than 40 films that they had shot of everyday French life: a child looking at a goldfish bowl, a baby being fed, a blacksmith at work, and soldiers marching. Footage of the French Photo graphic Society marked the first newsreel, and the Lyon Fire Department became the subject of the world’s first documentary. Audiences were riveted, fascinated by seeing life’s moments unfold on the big screen.
The day after the first public screening of the Lumières’ film in 1895, a local gazette trumpeted, “We have already recorded and reproduced spoken words. We can now record and play back life. We will be able to see our families again long after they are gone.’’ Indeed, the Lumières not only made history with their culture changing camera and new photographic processes; they preserved it.
The Lumières trained camera opera tors to use the invention and then travel all over the world. They showed the Lumières’ films to new audiences and also recorded their own footage of local events in the places they visited. Gabriel Veyre set out for Central America, the veteran soldier Félix Mesguich filmed in North Africa, and Charles Moisson headed for Russia, where he filmed the pomp and splendor of the crowning of the last tsar, Nicholas II, in 1896. Between 1895 and 1905, the Lumières would make more than 1,400 films, many of which have been preserved to this day.
The quest for color
As the cinema grew popular, the brothers began to turn their attention to new projects. They focused their ever present curiosity on tackling another technical challenge: color photography.
Color photography did exist, but the process of creating it was complicated and time consuming. The Lumière brothers’ solution had a profound effect on the emerging field. Patented in 1903, their process, called Autochrome Lumière, involved covering a glass plate with a thin wash of tiny potato starch grains dyed red, green, and blue. This granular wash created a filter, and gave autochromes the soft, pointillistic quality of a painting. A thin layer of emulsion was added to the filter, and when the plate was flipped and exposed to light, the resulting image could be developed into a transparency.
The autochrome remained the most widely used photographic plate capable of capturing color for more than 30 years. Magazines like National Geographic sent its photographers to capture the world with autochromes, the relative portability of which made documentary field work easier. The success of the brothers’ invention is reflected in the archives of the National Geographic Society, which house almost 15,000 autochrome plates, one of the largest collections in the world.
This family of inventors lived up to their name—lumière means “light” in French—illuminating life as they archived the past, captured the unseen, and created filmmakers and audiences alike.