January 7, 2015

A sneeze made history in 1894.

According to the Library of Congress, a Thomas Edison movie of Fred Ott’s sneeze is the first copyrighted U.S. film.

This was one of the early steps for a film industry that soon learned how to make money off of moving image technology.

The film took place sometime during the first week of 1894, but the Library of Congress likes to remember January 7, 1894 as the day Fred Ott sneezed. (The official copyright date came two days later.)

Here is a copy of the historic sneeze:

“Thomas A. Edison began thinking about the development of motion pictures in 1888….To turn his new invention into reality, Edison assigned responsibility for day-to-day development to one of his best assistants, a young Englishman named W. K. L. Dickson. By June of 1891, Dickson produced a series of successful experimental motion pictures that were shown to visiting groups at the Edison laboratory in New Jersey.

Over the next two years Dickson worked to perfect the two basic machines required for successful motion pictures: a device to record moving images, which he and Edison called the Kinetograph; and a machine to view the results, which they called the Kinetoscope.

….The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze is one of a series of short films made by Dickson in January 1894 for advertising purposes. The star is Fred Ott, an Edison employee known to his fellow workers in the laboratory for his comic sneezing and other gags. This item was received in the Library of Congress on January 9, 1894, as a copyright deposit from W. K. L. Dickson and is the earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture.”

— “A Sneeze Caught On Film
American Treasures of the Library of Congress

“The Library of Congress observed Thomas Edison’s birthday today with a new exhibit of the early history of motion pictures, highlighted by a film of Fred Ott’s sneeze.

….Looking at the movie of Fred Ott’s sneeze, it’s difficult to image that today’s multibillion dollar film industry is built on that jerky bit.

Edison filmed the sneeze, broke the movie down to a strip of stills and mailed it to the library to be copyrighted. There was then, of course, no provision for copyrighting moving pictures.

….Ott, whose sneeze is depicted, was a corpulent fellow with a heavy, handlebar mustache. He was given a pinch of snuff at the outset and came through with a glorious sneeze….”

— “Historic Sneeze Marks Movies’ Birthday”
Spokane Daily Chronicle/AP, February 11, 1954

There have been many movies (and reviews) since Fred Ott’s sneeze. A few years ago the American Film Institute looked back at the first 100 years of cinema. Here is the trailer about their project:

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