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In our own backyard...
From Vintage Film to Betacam
Saving the Past for the Future

By Alan D. Kattelle

In 1976, the bicentennial year of the country's founding, the Bicentennial Commission wished to re-screen a number of early patriotic films made at the Edison Studios in the early 1900s, such as The Death of Nathan Hale, The Boston Tea Party, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, etc., to be shown in schools across the country. It was discovered that the original nitrate prints had all disintegrated, and the only surviving prints were narrow gauge reduction prints which Edison had made for home use with a special Home Kinetoscope projector. A special printer would be needed, and the Commission turned to D. Karl Malkames, professional motion picture cameraman and son of the legendary Don Malkames. Karl built the printer, and successfully made dozens of 16mm negatives for the Commission.

History repeated itself in a small way recently, when Northeast Historic Film, a film archive in Bucksport Maine, asked me if I could help them obtain video copies of several old films of the logging and fishing industries of New England filmed in the first decade of the century, knowing that I had an Edison Home Kinetoscope in my collection of early movie machines.

The 1912 Edison Home Kinetoscope was a hand-cranked, arc-lamp motion picture projector designed and built in Thomas Alva Edison's renowned laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey, "to bring movies into the home"- a forerunner of today's home video. The film for this projector was 22mm wide, on Eastman safety stock. An unusual feature of this film was that it carried three rows of images, arranged head to tail, so that after cranking the film through once, the entire film transport was shifted laterally and the film cranked in the reverse direction, then once again shifted and cranked forward. Thus fifty feet of film contained 150 feet of images. The image was minuscule, slightly smaller than the old standard 8mm. Two rows of perforations ran on either side of the center row of images. A library of over 250 titles was maintained, from which films could be purchased at prices ranging from $2.50 to $20, depending on length. The Home Kinetoscope was never a commercial success; something less than 2,000 were sold, and they are now considered quite collectible.

To effect a transfer, an Edisonia expert friend, Kirk Bauer of Waltham, helped me put one of my Edison Home Kinetoscopes back in working order. Next, some repairs had to be made to one of the films, which entailed making a special punch to duplicate the original perforations. Then the services of Art Donahue, veteran cameraman of WCVB-TV CHANNEL 5, were enlisted. While I tended the miniature arc lamp, and Kirk turned the crank, the ancient images were brought to life on the screen, where Art picked them up on his Sony Betacam.

Northeast Historic Film got its videos, and Art and Channel 5 incorporated the Home Kinetoscope and some of our efforts into a recent program on Chronicle, showing the efforts of several New England people to preserve early home films.

Alan Kattelle is Founder and President of the Movie Machine Society, whose members include collectors of classic cameras and projectors, retired cameramen and projectionists, historians and professors. Alan can be reached at (508) 562-9184.

He reports that he has just had the good fortune to acquire an example of the first model professional Bell & Howell, made about 1909.

Posted: April 1996
Bob Lamm, SMPTE/New England Newsletter/Web Page Editor