Charles Jenkins and Thomas Armat: Pioneers of Cinema

Back to Blog
Leaders in Innovation

Charles Jenkins and Thomas Armat: Pioneers of Cinema

During these unprecedented times, many of us are spending more time at home than ever before. While this may have finally allowed us (with varying success) to learn a musical instrument or brush up on a foreign language, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have also made sure that when in doubt, there is always something to watch.

Though we often take the technology that enables us to enjoy our favorite movie or television series for granted, without the contributions of National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductees Charles Jenkins and Thomas Armat, innovators of early cinema, none of this would be possible.


Tinkering on the Farm

In 1868, Charles Jenkins was born to Quaker parents in Dayton, Ohio. When he was two years old, his family moved to a farm near Fountain City, Indiana. It was here that he spent his formative years and developed a passion for tinkering with machinery while fixing farm equipment. After graduating from Earlham College, he landed a job in 1890 as a stenographer for the federal government in Washington, D.C.

In his spare time, Jenkins began experimenting with movie film and working on prototypes of the Phantoscope — an early version of a film projector machine. In 1894, at a jewelry store owned by his cousin, he staged his first movie show by projecting images of a dancer onto the wall.  

According to a story published in the Richmond Telegram, those in attendance were stunned by what they saw:

“As the last arc ceased to sputter and the window-shades rolled up, the people began to ask one another what they had seen. It was not certainly clear. Although there had been the gesticulating girl… from where had she come? How did she move? The viewers went behind the screen to impress the wall and ascertain there was no trickery, for there were no words to express it.”

Given this success and reactions from the crowd, Jenkins quickly realized the potential of his invention, and a year later, he quit his job to pursue inventing full time.


The Evolution of Cinema

Jenkins returned to school in 1895 to attend the Bliss School of Electricity in Washington, D.C., where he met and befriended Thomas Armat. Armat combined his business experience (having succeeded as a real estate agent) with a creative mind of his own, having previously invented an oarlock for boats and an automatic car coupler for railroads.

Together, the two improved on Jenkins’ original design and unveiled their projector at the 1895 Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia. The team charged guests 25 cents to view the moving pictures projected from their “Phantascope.” For many historians, the room that Jenkins and Armat built for their show represents the first movie theater ever constructed. 

Not long after their success at the Cotton States Exposition, the two inventors had a falling out and went their separate ways. Though Jenkins claimed to be the sole inventor of the Phantasacope, a previous patent claimed that both Jenkins and Armat were joint presenters, so the United States Patent and Trademark Office rejected his claim.

At the same time, Armat showed the projector to NIHF Inductee Thomas Edison. While he was at first uninterested in the machine, he later saw its potential. Jenkins eventually sold his rights to the Phantoscope to Armat, who then sold the rights to Edison.

With his vast resources and teams of researchers, Edison was able to improve the technology of the Phantoscope, and the Edison Manufacturing Company went on to popularize a new entertainment business: the motion picture industry. 


Learn More About Our World-Changing Inductees

Innovation never stops. Jenkins and Armat made foundational contributions to film and set the groundwork for the popularization of video. For more stories about our visionary Inductees, we invite you to visit our blog.

Related Articles