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William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson (3 August 1860 – 28 September 1935) was a Scottish inventor who devised an early motion picture camera under the employment of Thomas Edison (post-dating the work of Louis Le Prince).[1][2]

William Kennedy Dickson
Dickson greeting cropped.jpg
Frame from the 1891 Dickson Greeting, featuring William Kennedy Dickson, in the first American film shown to a public audience.
William Kennedy Laurie Dickson

(1860-08-03)3 August 1860
Le Minihic-sur-Rance, Brittany, France
Died28 September 1935(1935-09-28) (aged 75)
Occupationinventor, director, producer, cinematographer, studio owner, actor

Early lifeEdit

William Kennedy Dickson was born on 3 August 1860 in Le Minihic-sur-Rance, Brittany, France. His mother was Elizabeth Kennedy-Laurie (1823?–1879) who may have been born in Virginia. [1] His father was James Waite Dickson, a Scottish artist, astronomer and linguist. James claimed direct lineage from the painter William Hogarth, and from Judge John Waite, the man who sentenced King Charles I to death.

Inventor and film innovatorEdit

At age 19 in 1879, William Dickson wrote a letter to American inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison seeking employment. He was turned down. That same year Dickson, his mother, and two sisters moved from Britain to Virginia.[3] In 1883 he was finally hired to work at Edison's laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. In 1888, Edison conceived of a device that would do "for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear". In October, Edison filed a preliminary claim, known as a caveat, with the United States Patent and Trademark Office; outlining his plans for the device. In March 1889, a second caveat was filed, in which the proposed motion picture device was given a name, the Kinetoscope. Dickson, then the Edison company's official photographer, was assigned to turn the concept into a reality.

William Dickson invented the first, practical, celluloid film, for this application. He slit a medium format roll film, which is 70 mm wide, and perforated the resultant 35 mm film, a standard format which is still in use to this day in cinema and photography.

William Dickson and his team, at the Edison lab, then worked on the development of the Kinetoscope for several years. The first working prototype was unveiled in May 1891 and the design of system was essentially finalised by the fall of 1892. The completed version of the Kinetoscope was officially unveiled at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on 9 May 1893. Not technically a projector system, it was a peep show machine showing a continuous loop of the film Dickson invented, lit by an Edison light source, viewed individually through the window of a cabinet housing its components. The Kinetoscope introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video.[4]

William Dickson and his team, created the illusion of movement, by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images, over a light source, with a high-speed shutter. They also, devised the Kinetograph, an innovative motion picture camera with rapid intermittent, or stop-and-go, film movement, to photograph movies for in-house experiments and, eventually, commercial Kinetoscope presentations.

William Dickson was the first person to make a film for the Pope, and at the time his camera was blessed by Pope Leo XIII.

In late 1894 or early 1895, William Dickson became an ad hoc advisor to the motion picture operation of the Latham brothers, Otway and Grey, and their father, Woodville, who ran one of the leading Kinetoscope exhibition companies. Seeking to develop a movie projector system, they hired former Edison employee Eugene Lauste, probably at Dickson's suggestion. In April 1895, Dickson left Edison's employ and joined the Latham outfit. Alongside Lauste, he helped devise what would become known as the Latham loop, allowing the photography and exhibition of much longer filmstrips than had previously been possible. The team of former Edison associates brought to fruition the Eidoloscope projector system, which would be used in the first commercial movie screening in world history on 20 May 1895. With the Lathams, Dickson was part of the group that formed the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, before he returned permanently to work in the United Kingdom in 1897.

William Dickson left Edison's company and formed his own company that produced the mutoscope, a form of hand cranked peep show movie machine. These machines produced moving images, by means of a revolving drum of card illustrations, similar in concept to flip-books, taken from an actual piece of film. They were often featured, at seaside locations, showing (usually) sequences of women undressing or acting as an artist's model. In Britain, they became known as "What the butler saw" machines, taking the name from one of the first and most famous softcore reels.[5][6]


His association with Biograph ended inexplicably in 1911. Dickson spent his last years quietly in his house in Twickenham, England. He died on September 28, 1935, at the age of 75. He died without being given credit for his contributions to the history of modern filmography.[7]


Dickson was the first to direct and likely star in a film with live recording. In 1894, he directed The Dickson Experimental Sound Film. A man (likely Dickson) played "The Song of the Cabin Boy" on the violin into a megaphone used for a partially off-camera phonograph. The film was the first to use the Kinetophone, the first device used in the earliest sound films.[8]


  • The Biograph in Battle (T. Fisher Unwin, London 1901). (reprinted Flicks Books, UK, 1995).
  • History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope, and Kinetophonograph (with Antonia Dickson, MOMA Publications 2000 ISBN 978-0-87070-038-5 Facsimile of Dickson's own copy of the book published in 1895)
  • An Authentic Life of Edison. The Life and Inventions of Thomas Alva Edison. (with Antonia Dickson, 8 volumes. New-York. Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. 1894)[9]
  • Timeline, the history of editing (John Buck 2018). (incl Dickson inventions)(Tablo Books ISBN 9781922192295).

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "it was his Scottish protégé, William Dickson, who... ", The Scotsman, 23 March 2002
  2. ^ "William Dickson, Scottish inventor and photographer", Science & Society Picture Library, accessed 18 September 2010
  3. ^ Oxford National Dictionary of Biography
  4. ^ Carr, Jack (23 March 2002). "Adventures in motion pictures". The Scotsman magazine. Johnston Press.
  5. ^ "History". American Mutoscope & Biograph Co. 2006. Retrieved 16 October 2006.
  6. ^ "Let's Go to the Movies: The Mechanics of Moving Images". Exhibit Archives. Museum of American Heritage. 17 September 2001. Retrieved 16 October 2006.
  7. ^ "William Kennedy Dickson." Historic Camera. May. 2013. Retrieved 30 July. 2017.
  8. ^ Hendricks, Gordon (1966). The Kinetoscope: America's First Commercially Successful Motion Picture Exhibitor. New York: Theodore Gaus' Sons. Reprinted in Hendricks, Gordon (1972). Origins of the American Film. New York: Arno Press/New York Times. ISBN 0-405-03919-0
  9. ^ "An Authentic Life of Edison. The Life and Inventions of Thomas Alva Edison". New York Times. 11 November 1894. By W. K. L. Dickson and Antonia Dickson. Illustrated with drawings and photographs. 8 vo. New-York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co. $4.50.
  • John Barnes, Filming the Boer War (Bishopsgate Press, UK,1992)
  • Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915 (Charles Scribner’s Sons, USA, 1990)
  • Richard Brown and Barry Anthony, A Victorian Film Enterprise:The History of the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company (Flicks Books, UK,1997)
  • Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: the American Screen to 1907 (Charles Scribner’s Sons, USA, 1990)
  • Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (University of California Press, USA, 1991)
  • William and Antonia Dickson, History of the Kinetograph, Kinetoscope, and Kinetophonograph (MOMA Publications 2000 ISBN 978-0-87070-038-5)
  • Gordon Hendricks, The Edison Motion Picture Myth (Arno Press, USA, 1972)
  • Ray Phillips, Edison's Kinetoscope and its Films – a History to 1896 (Flicks Books,UK, 1997)
  • Paul Spehr, The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson (John Libbey Publishing Ltd, UK, 2008)

External linksEdit