Annie Oakley was one of America's first movie stars, an ironic development considering that motion pictures would soon replace the Wild West shows that made her famous. By the end of Oakley's life, the movies would become America's most popular form of mass entertainment.
Meeting With Edison
Annie Oakley first met the famed electric light bulb inventor Thomas Edison at the 1889 exposition commemorating the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show, which starred Oakley, was one of the key attractions in Paris, as was Edison's phonograph. The two met at breakfast one morning, and Oakley, who'd been having trouble with the French gunpowder she'd been forced to use for her shooting displays, asked Edison if he could invent an electric gun. "I have not come to that yet," Edison answered, "but it may come." In fact Edison would never add that to his lengthy list of inventions, but he did help the Wild West show in other ways, designing an electrical plant that enabled the show to perform at night during an 1894 summer-long engagement in Brooklyn.
In the fall of that year, Edison invited Oakley to his studio in West Orange, New Jersey, to conduct a remarkable experiment. A few years earlier, Edison had sought a patent for a device he called a kinetograph, a primitive version of what would later become a movie camera. Edison wanted to see if his machine was precise enough to capture the smoke from Annie's gun. So Oakley came to visit what Edison had dubbed the "Black Maria," a building covered by black tar paper that could be rotated so it always caught the strongest sunshine. Edison's experiment was a success -- his kinetograph not only captured the smoke rising from Annie's gun, but also the glass balls shattering when her shots hit them. Edison also brought in Buffalo Bill and several of the Indians from his Wild West show to star in their own brief film.
Edison wasn't content just to record the images -- with the help of assistant William Dickson, he also invented the kinetoscope, a device for playing them back. The kinetoscope featured a peephole through which viewers watched images pass between a lens and an electric light bulb at 46 frames per second. It was the first motion picture device, and kinetoscope parlors became immediate hits when they debuted in April 1894 in New York City. These parlors frequently had rows of machines, each with a different "movie," and Annie's brief film was likely among those first displayed. Patrons paid a nickel apiece to watch the series of images that would run for about a minute and a half. They became so popular that the kinetoscope parlors were soon dubbed "nickelodeons." Over the years, as motion picture technology developed, nickelodeons were eventually replaced by movie theaters, a form of mass entertainment that would be to the 20th century what Wild West shows had been to the 19th.
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