Editor’s Note: I’ve changed the title. Sorry if this offends anyone. I was in a hurry when I originally put this post up, and this title is a better tease. I hope.

The following comes courtesy of Ben Alpers, frequent commenter and gifted film historian. I was going to do the Peggy Eaton affair and John C. Calhoun’s resignation (on this day in 1832), which would have been: HOTT! But I’m tired of the Civil War, for the moment at least, and Calhoun kept bringing me back to nullification. So Ben bailed me out.

(Thanks to Ari for tossing me this guest slot!)

On this day in 1895, the brothers Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis Lumière (1864-1948) held what is usually said to be the first ever public screening of projected motion pictures at the Salon Indien in the basement of the Grand Café on the Boulevard de Capucins in Paris. The screening lasted a total of twenty minutes and consisted of ten films, including the now famous “La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyons” (“Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory”), their very first film. Like the other films in the screening, it featured a short image from everyday life. The entire program of films screened that day can be viewed here.

The Lumières came from a family that had long been interested in the mechanical reproduction of images. Their father, Antoine Lumière (1840-1911) ran a factory that produced photographic plates. Auguste and Louis went to work in their father’s factory and eventually took over the business when he retired in 1892. It was Antoine who apparently first interested his sons in motion pictures when, in the autumn of 1894, he was inspired by a motion picture he had viewed in Thomas Alva Edison’s Kinetoscope, the peepshow device with which the Wizard of Menlo Park had introduced the world to motion pictures.

Antoine’s wonder at the Kinetoscope draws our attention to the importance of specifying exactly what happened for the first time in that Paris basement salon 112 years ago today.

Antoine Lumière was only one of probably millions of people who were thrilled by the Kinetescope before the Lumières began to make movies. Inspired by the serial photography of Eadweard Muybridge, Edison had privately shown the prototypes of his device as early as 1891. It received its public debut at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9, 1893. Almost immediately following the opening of the first Kinetoscope parlor in New York City on April 14, 1894, the device achieved extraordinary popularity not only in the US, but overseas, where Edison’s decision not to pursue international patents on the Kinetoscope helped spur the development of other cinematic cameras and exhibition devices.

The Lumières were among a crowd of inventors who hoped to improve on Edison’s Kinetoscope by combining the new technology of moving pictures with the older projecting technology of the magic lantern. Former Confederate Major Woodville Latham and his two sons, Grey and Otway Latham, who were among the first operators of Kinetoscope parlors, developed the Panoptikon, a movie projector which they first demonstrated privately on April 21, 1895. The machine got its public debut on May 20, 1895, though the results were unsatisfactory. More successful was the Phantascope, which American inventors Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat used to screen films for a paying audience in September, 1895, at the Cotton States Exhibition in Atlanta, otherwise known as the site of Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Speech.

Meanwhile in Germany, Max Skladanowsky had developed the Bioskop projector, which was first demonstrated in July 1895 and began to project films for paying audiences at the Wintergarten Theatre in Berlin that November.

So what exactly did the Lumière Brothers do for the first time, roughly a month later, on this day in 1895?

The Lumières were, for the first, time, exhibiting before a paying public their cinématographe, an extraordinary device that not only projected film, but also shot and developed it. The Lumières had built interest in their device by showing it to private audiences starting in March 1895. Within weeks of the device’s successful premiere before a paying audience, the Lumieres had produced two hundred cinématographes produced. Soon they were thrilling crowds throughout Europe. Like so many other episodes in the early history of cinema, fame went not to the first to accomplish a technical feat—in this case projecting motion picures—but to those most able to commercially exploit it.

While it’s wrong to see the Lumières’ screening in the Salon Indien as the Kitty Hawk of cinema, it was nevertheless a key moment in the complicated early history of moving pictures. But in many ways, the most significant steps in the development of movies were yet to come.

The Lumières initial success was built on the sheer spectacle of moving images. Like most others involved in early cinema, the brothers initially saw the devices they invented essentially as novelties. But the wonder of simply seeing images move, which made audiences flock to Kinetoscope parlors in 1894 and to Lumière cinématoscope shows in 1895 and 1896, quickly wore off. In order to stay in business, innovators like Edison and the Lumières needed to provide content that had more intrinsic interest. Within a decade of the invention of motion pictures, it became clear that the surest way to attract audiences to film was by using the new medium to tell stories. And by 1907 or 1908, audiences began to demand more visually and narratively complicated story films. By the end of the 1910s, filmmakers had developed much of the language of narrative film that is used to this day.

For those interested in the first quarter century of cinema, a great place to start is Charles Musser’s The Emergence of Cinema: the American Screen to 1907, the first volume in the essential History of the American Cinema series. Also worth reading is the second volume in the series, Eileen Bowser’s The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915. Many wonderful early films are also now available on DVD. Kino International has been particular important in bringing early film to home video (the Movies Begin box set is a great place to start). Also terrific is the Treasures from American Film Archives series assembled by the National Film Preservation Foundation.