Preserving the magic of cinema since 1978

Early cinema projection

David A Ellis


In the silent days before 1910, the projectionist was in the auditorium with the patrons. The projector would be in the aisle and the operator would operate the projector by turning a handle. The film would usually fall into a basket. The film was nitrate base so could easily go up in flames. This happened on numerous occasions.

In 1910, it became law that projection equipment had to be housed in a separate area from the audience. Therefore, cinemas had to construct projection rooms containing fireproof shutters. In addition, there had to be a bucket of water, a bucket of sand and an asbestos blanket, as fire precautions. The projection room had to be separate from the rewind area. Only film to be put on the projectors was allowed in the projection box. This practice remained until the introduction of safety base in the fifties. Then it was allowed to rewind film in the projection box.

Another strict rule was no smoking, and signs would be placed in the projection and rewind rooms. Staff in a projection room in the early days would be three, four, or more people a shift. There would be one man turning the handle between sixteen and eighteen frames per second, another would be attending to the carbons, having to constantly feed them, as there was no automatic feed. Another would be taking care of rewinding. Two would be required for a changeover. One turning and one minding the carbons. In 1911, projectors became motorised, eliminating the need to hand crank, though it was still possible to hand crank if desired. Some distributors stated the speed which they wanted their film screened. Some projectors had frames per second meters on them such as the Kalee 11. In 1927 the first part talkie/silent film, The Jazz Singer, with sound on disc was shot at 24 frames per second (fps). 24 fps became the speed for sound films with optical sound tracks. Film ran through the projector at 18 inches per second, 90 feet per minute. Projection work could be a little on the unhealthy side due to carbon dust being inhaled when cleaning arcs, carbon fumes being breathed in before extraction was fitted, possible exposure to asbestos, which was used on cables connected to the equipment, and the dangers of some early machinery with a front flicker shutter that wasn't encased, and could do damage if contact was made. There were also cleaning fluids that were suspect where health was concerned and the dangers of rewinding poor prints that could make a nasty cut to your fingers.

In the nitrate days, films were shipped in 1000ft foot rolls giving eleven minutes running time. The projectionist, using film cement, would often join these into 2000ft rolls. Tape joiners were a long time away in the future. When safety base film came along in the 1950s films were sent in 2000ft rolls. Projection rooms varied in size, some having limited movement. In 1932, The Bioscope magazine reported on the opening of the Dominion Hounslow, stating that it has one of the largest projection rooms in London. It was equipped with Walturdaw and Western Electric sound.

There were several makes of projector including Kalee, Simplex, Kamm, John Bull, Empire and BTH, made in Rugby. Kershaws made Kalee machines in Leeds, and the International Projector Corporation made Simplex in New York. Exhibitors found themselves paying out huge sums to install sound. You could buy the disc and optical system or just the optical system. In 1929, a Cinephone disc and optical system cost between £1500 and £1950. Easy terms were usually on offer.

The cinema has come a long way from those early days. We have seen wide screens, 3D, 70mm, safety base film, polyester film stock, non-rewind systems (cake-stand) and towers, eliminating changeovers, magnetic sound tracks, Dolby Stereo, xenon lamps, Dolby Digital and now digital projection. Most cinemas have removed their 35mm equipment which has been mostly skipped. Fortunately the Projected Picture Trust has saved equipment and has examples of most machines at their headquarters in Halifax.