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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Moving Pictures Change the World!

Charles Francis Jenkins and one of his projectors

Charles Francis Jenkins

Minutia from George's Brain

George Seminara

After Moving to Washington DC from Richmond, Indiana to be a stenographer, Charles Francis Jenkins was less than thrilled with the hurly-burly world of stenography. He spent the moments between taking notes to think of the world at this exciting spot as the new century was approaching (the 19th century - hey, this was 1891). How was he going to make his mark?

A new entertainment was sweeping the world, and it was called the magic lantern. This slide show led to the flickers. With the introduction of the zoopraxiscope, the electrotachyscope, they could now play images in sequence for a small audience. However, photographing them in the sequence was a difficult proposition. These were little more than slide shows, but they were getting there. Following Thomas Edison's invention of recording sound, at first, on cylinders and then shellac records, that could be mass-produced and played back on inexpensive devices in the home. The success of the phonograph gave Edison the desire to create images that could be viewed along with the music. He put a team on it. (Thomas Edison created the music video! What!?!) 

The Magic Lantern

Edison went even further by inventing the Kinetoscope, the first nickelodeon. A single viewer could turn a crank and watch a sequence of images play out for a nickel. But watching 10 seconds of a movie for a nickel a pop, was not the money-making sensation of 1892! His team had already invented the camera that could shoot multiple images sequentially, called the Kinetograph, in 1892, but they really didn't have an end use for it yet. Firstly, it was ginormous, and secondly, it was delicate. If you moved it, you had to adjust every element. Edison decided not to pursue projection as he felt it was not financially viable. 

A sidebar here: Edison introduced the Kinetoscope at The First Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World. (Inspired by the lynching of eleven Italians by the Klan in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1891. President Harrison thought it would mollify the Italian immigrant population and prevent their reprisals. Those Latins and their knives!) But at the Exposition, we discovered: popcorn, braille, the Ferris wheel, moving sidewalks, aerosol spray, the first electric car, fluorescent bulbs, the zipper, and the third rail, amongst other things. America got its first serial killer, Henry H. Holmes. Houdini became a star while body builder EugenSandow and the White City Exhibition gave us the first taste of Eugenics. Visitors were many: Frank Lloyd Wright, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Hellen Keller, Buffalo Bill Cody, and the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who should never have visited Sarajevo. (The whole thing ended when the mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, was assassinated, proving he should have gone to Sarajevo.)

C. Francis Jenkins, as he chose to be known professionally, also attended the fair and decided that the flickers were where he wanted to be. There was no film industry per se, just the promise of this new technology. He wasn't concerned with what they were going to watch. Jenkins thought that if Edison could show 15 seconds of a film and charge a nickel, the only drawback would be that only one person could see it at a time. How much money could you make if you got a room of people to pay a nickel for each and every 15 seconds? I believe even back then, they called it "Making Bank!" C. F. Jenkins developed the first viable motion picture projector, the Phantoscope. And it was tiny - 5 X 5 X 8 - and light!

The Phantoscope

He had quit his stenography job and was living off his father's generosity. When the time came, he went home to Richmond and set up a screen and chairs at his cousin's jewelry shop. He had to prove to his father that he wasn't wasting his life away chasing pipedreams. In preparation, he shot a film featuring the quasi-famous vaudeville star Annabelle performing her Butterfly dance in the backyard of their rooming house. (Dad was willing to support his son but not in high style- an actors’ boarding house? "How uncouth!") After assembling the film, he spent the week before his return home hand painting every frame of the two-minute film. On the evening of June 5, 1894, a small group of family and press members gathered to see what this scion of Richmond had done while seeking his fortune. They didn't know it at the time, but they were the first audience of a motion picture anywhere on the planet.

Jenkins was a rising star in technology. His projector was superior to all existing forms of watching sequential images. Returning to Washington D.C., he went to the Bliss Electrical School and struck up a friendship with like-minded Tom Armat. Together they streamlined the projector, added a fan to prevent overheating and wired it up to the current standard. They premiered at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta to much fanfare and received their patent for the Phantoscope in June of 1897. 

Ever the rolling stone, C. Francis Jenkins sold his share of the Phantoscope to Armat, and Armat sold the patent to Thomas Edison. Edison cleaned it up, renamed it the Vitascope, and started shipping them and his self-produced movies to Vaudeville theaters around the country. And so, an industry was born.

But was this the end of Charles Francis Jenkins? Absolutely not! He had made some money, but his brain kept churning. He couldn't rest on his laurels. In 1898 Jenkins was interviewed by Animated Pictures Magazine, one of the first film magazines that weren't about stars, because there weren't any yet, but dedicated to the science of filmmaking. He discussed his creative methods and his work toward syncing up audio and film. Most of us would have to wait until 1929 to see that, almost 30 years later. Already, Jenkins was thinking about it.  

In 1894, Gugliemo Marconi began work on a wireless telegraph. He used what he called radio waves. He teamed up with a German cat named Karl Braun, and they found that the waves bounced off the ionosphere (the layer of the earth's atmosphere that contains a high concentration of ions and free electrons and can reflect radio waves boosting the broadcasts' reach. The ionosphere lies about 50 to 600 miles (80 to 1,000 km) above the earth's surface. Holy crap!) This allowed their signal to travel further than even they theorized. For their trouble, they received the Nobel Prize in physics.

Radio. “I wonder what I could do with radio?” I'm sure that question was on Jenkin's mind. In 1913 he published an article entitled "Motion Picture by Wireless." He had the idea, and it took ten years for him to demonstrate it in action. It was almost Christmas in 1923 when he put his theory into action. In front of a group of witnesses (no hinky stuff for C. Francis) Jenkins transmitted a live moving image from one location to another. It was a silhouette of a man prancing in front of the camera. As the video goes, it was primitive and could not capture the detail. It took until June 13, 1925, to publicly demonstrated a synchronized transmission of pictures and sound. "Wow!" He received a patent the following year.

Jenkins at the Radiovisor

Spoiler: Jenkins' work was expanded into electronic television by dudes like Vladimir Zworykin and Philo Farnsworth. Tesla, Marconi, and all the smart guys could see binge-watching in the future.

This lake of quality didn't stop our boy, C. Francis Jenkins. In 1928, he opened the very first television station in the U.S., W3XK, which went live on July 2 from the Jenkins Labs in Washington and then sometime in 1929 from the Jenkins Studios in beautiful downtown Wheaton, Maryland. Five nights a week. At first, the station could only send silhouette images due to its narrow bandwidth and janky camera. After some greenbacks slipped under the table, his bandwidth increased. Simultaneously Jenkins further developed his recording cell. Soon, W3XK broadcasts authentic black-and-white images with synchronous sound into the one or two homes with television receivers.

Jenkins TV Studio

In the spring of 1932, Jenkins Television Corporation was acquired by the Lee de Forest Radio Corporation, which promptly went bankrupt and sold all its assets at bargain prices to RCA. To Nipper's (their mascot) lasting embarrassment, RCA stopped all work on electromechanical television. With a little vision they could have been CBS. 

But all was not cameras, pictures, and signals for C. Francis. Oh no, he decided to get into the fast-breaking automobile industry in 1898! Jenkins was more of a hot-rodder, playing around with various automotive ideas. The main one is placing the engine in the front of the car rather than in the rear. The front-wheel drive was an automotive first. Jenkins Automotive manufactured it. He played around with the idea of using a drive shaft suspended under the cabin to power the rear tires as well. He may have invented all-wheel drive. In 1901 he constructed the world's smallest car (at the time) for the 26-inch-tall Cuban sensation and banana name-sake Chiquita.

In the end, Jenkins is little more than a footnote to the cinema. However, one cannot ignore his contributions to the technology of motion pictures and television. The Emmy Committee presents a lifetime achievement award for engineering called the Charles Francis Jenkins award. An organization of like-minded individuals, the Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers, or SMPTE, continues to set the standard for all the technical aspects of cinema and television was founded and presided by him during his lifetime. Jenkins got inducted into the Inventor's Hall of Fame. He won various medals and awards and at least one honorary Doctorate of Science. He wrote numerous books on technology and volume one of his proposed auto-biographical trilogy, The Boyhood of an Inventor. 

Jenkins Genius Award

One last word on the man's greatness was that he had a battleship named after him in World War Two. SS C. Francis Jenkins didn't see any action. But it did patrol and protect the dangerous waterways around New York City! (Tragically, she was sold for scrap and broken up in China in 1966.)

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