We often hold writers, directors, and cinematographers, responsible for movie masterpieces. But who made this possible? It turns out discovering who invented the movies is actually more of a question of when, because there were different inventors at different times in history, and all had a hand in innovating the motion picture. Let’s look at the history of motion pictures to answer when were movies invented, while also discovering who to thank for what we have today.

History of Motion Pictures

When were movies invented

Similarly to the invention of the photographic camera, motion pictures had numerous inventors across many decades. There is rarely one sole inventor in anything technological; the creation is often realized from innovation of previous models or ideas, often taking years and years of thoughtful analysis.

So in order to have a clearer picture of when the movies were invented, we have to look to the history of motion pictures to see who invented what and when, and how each idea led to the next. 

History of Who Invented Motion Pictures

Who invented movies and when?

Let’s take a trip back to the mid 19th century to hopefully answer our question of when. 

Early Years 1830s and the Zoetrope

In the early years, even before the invention of photography, toys were invented to view a series of drawings in rapid succession to create the illusion of motion. These drawings were first mounted on the face of a twirling disc called a phenakistoscope in 1832. And then in 1834, William George Horner, created a similar device. It was an early form of a motion picture projector that put the drawings inside of a drum that turned in a circular fashion to also create the illusion of motion, called a zoetrope

He originally named it the Daedatelum, or “wheel of the devil” but Pierre Desvignes, a French inventor, renamed his version of it, the zoetrope, (a Greek word for “things that turn). 

Zoetrope in action

1840 saw Alexander Wolcott’s invention of the first camera that produced photographs that would not fade quickly.

But motion pictures would not exist until live action could be photographed simultaneously and spontaneously. 

This was only possible with two things - the innovation of a photographic process in 1870 which reduces exposure time from one hour to one-hundredth of a second, and two, a certain technological development by Eadweard Muybridge from 1872 to 1877.

The 1870s and a Bet

The 1870s saw incredible innovation for the motion picture. During 1872 and 1877, British American inventor, Eadweard Muybridge worked for California Governor Leland Stanford. Stanford was a racehorse breeder and hired Muybridge to prove that a galloping horse lifts all four hooves off the ground at once. Conventions of that time and common illustrations proved otherwise, and of course the human eye couldn’t capture movement that rapid. So Muybridge was hired to help Stanford win this bet. Muybridge toiled and worked with multiple cameras to take successive photos of horses in motion. It wasn’t until 1877 that he figured it out. On a Sacramento racecourse, he set up a battery of twelve cameras with wires that stretched across the track, and each wire operated their shutters. So as a horse rode down the track, its hooves would trip each shutter to expose a successive photo of the gallop. These 12 photos captured the horse in motion and they were able to confirm Stanford’s belief. 

Technically, this is the first motion picture ever made.

Watch the galloping horses in the first "motion picture"

In October of 1878, the Scientific American published these series of pictures, with instructions to view them through a zoetrope.

Muybridge then mounted these individual images on a rotating disk and projected them on a screen through a magic lantern, producing a “moving picture.”

Zoogyroscope Projector

Stanford supported Muybridge after this with the invention of the zoogyroscope in 1879. This device allowed Muybridge to project photos to an audience in San Francisco, the next year. 


Around the same time, in 1882, French physiologist, Etienne-Jules Marey, invented the chronophotographic gun, a camera shaped like a rifle that recorded 12 photos per second. He wanted to study birds in flight. These images were printed on a rotating glass plate, (later paper roll film), he then attempted to project these images. 

Marey’s chronophotography, along with Muybridge’s work, are considered the founding concepts for projectors and the first motion picture camera.

When was film invented

The first motion picture camera

Without Marey and Muybridge’s achievements, the invention of cinematography would have been a slower process. But inventors around the world were always working on something. 

New Film Technology

In 1887 in Newark, New Jersey, a minister named Hannibal Goodwin decided to use celluloid as a base for photographic emulsions. But it was George Eastman who experimented with sensitized paper rolls for still photos, and started to manufacture this celluloid roll film in 1889 in New York. While Marey’s chronophotography allowed glass plates or paper strips to record shorter duration events for a small amount of images, Eastman and Goodwin’s technology expanded this. This type of film could now record thousands of images for longer... this is the basis of cinematography. 

Celluloid was a durable recording medium that could house the amount of images cinematography requires.

Now the only thing left to do was to combine the apparatuses of Marey and Muybridge with this celluloid strip film to give us a workable motion picture camera. 

The First Motion Picture Camera

French inventor, Louis Le Prince invented the first motion picture camera in the 1880s. He shot several short films in Leeds, England in 1888.

While travelling in France, he unexpectedly disappeared right before he was to show his work in New York in 1890. This event never happened and his contribution was lost in history for quite some time.

The Kinetograph & Kinetoscope

Thomas Edison and his assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson are largely regarded as the inventors of the first motion picture camera. 

In 1888, Thomas Edison commissioned his assistant, Dickson to invent the Kinetograph, a primitive motion picture camera, that combined viewing technology with motion picture recording. The pair built on the inventions of Marey and Muybridge, and the camera imprinted around 50 feet of celluloid film at the rate of 40 frames per second.

A Kintograph film

They designed a peep-show style viewing device called the Kinetoscope. This ran a continuous 47 foot film loop on spools between an incandescent lamp and a shutter for individual viewing. By 1894, they were marketed commercially by the firm Raff and Gammon for about $250 to $300 each.

In West Orange, New Jersey, Edison established his own Kinetograph studio - it was a single-room building that rotated on tracks to follow the sun, called the “Black Maria.”

By April of that year, Kinetograph Parlors opened up, for public film screenings. 

Lumière Brothers & The Cinèmatographe

The French were also working on developing motion picture cameras. Actually it was during a Kinetoscope exhibition in Paris that inspired the next motion picture innovation.  After this event, in 1895, Louis and Auguste Lumière introduced the first commercially viable projector that also functioned as a camera and printer. It ran 16 frames per second, was hand-cranked, weighing only 20 pounds, compared to the Kinetograph which was battery driven and 1,000 pounds. It was called The Cinèmatographe.

The portability of this device affected the kinds of films that were made with each. Lumiere films were also called “actualities” they could be taken outdoors, shot on location, and often were documentary style. 

Here’s an example of a Lumiére film from 1896.

This one looks more like a movie: The Cinématographe

The Cinématographe became the European standard and expanded to Eastern European countries as well as Asia. 

Both style films however, contained virtually no narrative or story. Both films were made of a single unedited shot emphasizing lifelike movement, rather than conveying any semblance of a story.

So Who Invented Movies?

The movies we know today

It’s obvious that answering when were the movies invented is no easy feat. Many creators were involved in the process across decades. 

The first motion picture is technically Muybridge’s galloping horses.

But because Edison, and the Lumiere Brothers were experimenting with motion pictures using real people - they’re probably closer to the inventors of what we consider movies today. But even they didn’t incorporate too much story into these “movies.” And what’s a movie without a good story?

The first film that had a story and was feature length was the 1906 Australian production called The Story of the Kelly Gang.

Watch a clip below. 

The first feature length film

Between the years of 1890 and 1927, thousands of silent films were made and it was there that story line was developed and technical craft became honed.

Up Next

When was the Camera Invented?

The same idea holds true for the equipment that made movies and photographs possible. The camera was invented over time and by several people, though some more critical in the process than others. Find out more in our next article. 

Up Next: When was the Camera Invented? →
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  • Alyssa Maio is a screenwriter from New Jersey, now living in Los Angeles. She works as a copywriter here at StudioBinder.

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