The Lumiere brothers in France quickly reverse-engineered Edison’s device, and made important improvements. First, they compacted the device into a small box that could be used as a camera and playback device. They also installed a hand-crank (Edison’s relied on electrical power), and slowed the film speed to 16 fps (Edison’s required film speeds up to 48 fps). A slower film speed allowed for much longer film strips, up to 3 minutes in length. They called their new device, the “Cinematographe”, and it caused an instant sensation. Thomas Edison quickly followed with the “Vitascope”, a compact projection system that rivaled the success of the Lumiere invention.

Lumiere Brothers - first films (Paris, 1895)

Presented on December 28, 1895, in the 100-seat Salon Indien below the Grand Café at 14 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, the initial public showing of the Lumieres’ films attracted a meager crowd of only thirty-three persons. So impressive was this first exhibition, however, that “by the second day, lines of people stretched down the street,” and soon “mobs of people numbering more than two thousand each day” sought admission (Larry Timm:  The Soul of Cinema ). 

Early filmmakers soon discovered the value of sensationalized content. Among the most successful early Vitascope films were The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), and John Rice-May Irwin Kiss (1896). Special-effect films such as Lumieres’ The Happy Skeleton (1895), and George Mélies’  The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) , and A Trip to the Moon (1902) continued this trend by conjuring impressions of disappearances, levitations, transmutations, and other “trick camera” techniques.

Georges Méliès - A Trip to the Moon (1902)


Edison’s film  The Great Train Robbery  of 1903 was an ambitious attempt to present a dramatic story in a cinematic context. The movie utilized 740 feet of film, with fourteen scenes lasting a total of twelve minutes. Among the innovations of the film were various editing devices - including “elliptical jumps in time, over which the audience makes the connecting links that the director has purposely omitted”.  The Great Train Robbery marked a turning point in the history of cinema, whereas film evolved from objective views to thoughtful narratives.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of how music might have figured into presentations of the film. It would likely have followed the Vaudeville model, utilizing a single pianist or small orchestra.

Thomas Edison - The Great Train Robbery (1903)