1894

Esther Bang
Apr 7, 2017 · 4 min read

Edison

Black Maria

Figure 1 Earliest photograph of Black Maria (March 5 -8, 1894) (Image source: Phillips, Ray. Edison’s Kinetoscope and Its Films: A History to 1896. Trowbridge: Fliks, 1997. Print.)

Sitting at 15’ wide and 50’ long, on a part of Edison’s West Orange laboratory grounds, is the Black Maria, the world’s first motion-picture studio.(1) The lumber building, covered on the outside with black tar paper and painted black inside, began construction in December 1892 and was completed in February of the following year.(2) The Black Maria, affixed with wheels underneath each end, was designed to be hand-pushed and rotated on a central pivot along a circular wooden track. The turning of the building allowed for the sun to shine through the opened roof directly onto the stage. This opened roof provided adequate sunlight for the slow kinetoscope films, which were taken at up to 40 frames per second — but it also made the building very uncomfortable during the hot, stuffy summers and freezing cold winters.(3)

Inside the black tar papered building, named after the New York Police Department’s big black patrol wagons, new films were produced for the kinetoscope. (4) At the right end was a darkroom, with a small dark ruby glass window sealed by a sliding shutter. This allowed a faint red light for the cameraman to change the film without affecting the film’s integrity.(5) When the darkroom door was opened, a large black painted camera secured to a large wooden stand with steel rollers was pushed onto a track towards the center stage. On the left side of the building was a stage, flooded with sunlight from the roof opened vertically (as shown in Figure 1) (6). When filming was not underway, the roof would rest on the framework attached to the façade of the building, as seen in Figure 2.

Expanded “Black Maria” (Winter 1894) Note the location of the tree in comparison to figure 1, the building has been turned halfway around. (Image source: Phillips, Ray. Edison’s Kinetoscope and Its Films: A History to 1896. Trowbridge: Fliks, 1997. Print.)

In 1894, the Black Maria was expanded: the main door was enlarged at the expense of losing the window in order to accommodate the use of props and stage sets. Also, a second door was added towards the right side of the building in Figure 2. The enormous timber shown in Figures 1 and 2 was fastened to the two steel I-beams on which rests the center of the building and acts as the pivot on which the building turns. The upper end of the timber swings out and down until it is parallel to the ground, and the inner end locks between the I-beams. Then the timber and another matching timber on the other side of the building are used to push the building. Without these timber pieces, pushing the building at opposite ends of a lightly constructed building would have definitely twisted it out of shape.(7)

As the building expanded, so did the stage. In figure 3, we can see the railings at the sides of the stage, with their ornamental newel posts, replaced with cruder railings and the barely visible camera tracks in the foreground of the image. In the left side of the image are hanging ropes with their counterweights that controlled both the hinged roof and backdrops for the stage.

Figure 3 The expanded stage of the “Black Maria” (Winter 1894) (Image source: Phillips, Ray. Edison’s Kinetoscope and Its Films: A History to 1896. Trowbridge: Fliks, 1997. Print.)

The films taken in the Black Maria were never processed in the darkroom, which was only used for unloading and reloading the camera. Developing and printing of the film occurred in other buildings of the laboratory compound. (8) As time passed, the Black Maria fell out of favor and was eventually demolished in 1903. A replica of the Black Maria was reconstructed from photographs and sketches in 1953, but the replica too would eventually shut its doors to the public in June 1994.

Figure 4 Exterior and interior sketch of the “Black Maria” by W K-L Dickson to Earl Theisen on July 5, 1933. (Image source: Phillips, Ray. Edison’s Kinetoscope and Its Films: A History to 1896. Trowbridge: Fliks, 1997. Print.)

The Black Maria’s transformative mechanisms and lack of architectural documentation renders it a mystery to the casual scholar. The only depiction of the entire interior layout of the building could be found in a sketch by WKL Dickson, which was given to Earl Theisen to reconstruct the original. In this sectional section at the lower half of Figure 4, from left to right, is the following description:

“Black Tunnel”, “Stage all lighted”, “Rails 18” apart”, “Doors to Dark Room”, ” 9x7” and, at the extreme right, “Dark R narrowed down to 9x7”. At an angle and above to the right are the words “Light FRAME-canvas covered-then black felt-“ and in very light script, “ropes to pull up prop”. (9)

  1. Phillips, Ray. Edison’s Kinetoscope and Its Films: A History to 1896. Trowbridge: Fliks, 1997. Print. p 37.
  2. Ibid, p 37.
  3. Ibid, p 37.
  4. Ibid, p 38.
  5. Ibid, p 38.
  6. Ibid, p 38.
  7. Ibid, p 41.
  8. Ibid, p 40.
  9. Ibid, p 45.