"To C. Francis Jenkins we owe the motion picture."---Homer Croy, author & screenwriter

  • filmreel2
  • filmreel2
  • filmreel2

"Every filmmaker-from D.W. Griffith to Steven Spielberg-owes a debt of gratitude to C. Francis Jenkins...his technologies gave rise to the motion picture industry..." ---The Franklin Institute


Before there was a Hollywood, a small Indiana town first experienced the magic of motion pictures. It was a story of vision and adversity. Without it, there may not have been a Hollywood or American dominance in the motion picture industry.

On June 6, 1894 inventor Charles Francis Jenkins changed cultural history by projecting a filmed motion picture...moving pictures by way of reeled film and electric light... before an audience. It was "the first moving picture exhibition in the world". This documented event occurred at 726 East Main Street in Richmond, Indiana, just a few miles south of his boyhood home. Jenkins was born near Dayton, Ohio on August 22, 1867. He was two years old when the Quaker family moved to a farm just outside of Fountain City, Indiana. During the sixteen years he lived there he tinkered with machinery in efforts to fix broken-down farm equipment. One of his earliest inventions was a jack to elevate wagons in order to grease wheels. At the age of 19, in 1886, Jenkins left the area for Washington D.C. where he worked as a stenographer for what would later become the U.S. Coast Guard.


The young inventor began the creation of a movie projector in 1890. In his spare time, Jenkins had been working on what he referred to as a "motion picture projecting box". He named it a Phantoscope, as he did with all of his early motion picture inventions. In the summer of 1894 Jenkins wrote his parents that he was returning to Richmond to show them one of his latest inventions. The gadget was shipped ahead and he would then ride a bicycle 700 miles from the nation's capitol to Richmond, Indiana. As he requested, his parents, reporters, family and friends gathered in an upstairs store-room at Jenkins' cousin's jewelry store in downtown Richmond on June 6.

As the Richmond Telegram reported:

“All morning Charles made ready to show his friends the object that had been the center of his attention for two years ... He needed electrical current to run it but there was no electricity in the store. The source of the purposed illumination was from a large-bowled lamp. The only current in reach was a trolley wire that passed the door on Main Street. To this Jenkins attached a lateral wire and brought it down to the proper voltage by means of a pail of water. He placed the machine on the counter and hung a bed sheet on the opposite wall. The window blinds were drawn on passersby on Main while the young man’s father and mother together with a few friends and newsmen stood in half-light wondering what was about to be revealed."

“There began a sputtering sound as the machine kicked into life and out of the lens shot light onto the wall and a girl clad in garments more picturesque than protective stepped lively. She did not seem bashful thus displayed, while those in the audience were taken aback. She was " Annabelle", a vaudeville favorite, who had been engaged by young Jenkins for a special performance in the backyard of his Washington boarding house. With the audience consisting of him and his camera, Jenkins had captured her for posterity while she executed the intricacies of a butterfly dance. The lady’s remunerations for interpreting the insect’s terpsichorean movements had been five dollars, which seemed to cover adequately all the artistry displayed, although her costume was of a far briefer coverage… As the sputtering grew louder and the grinding more fervid the girl began to reproduce on the wall the movements she had executed in the boarding house backyard which were ... of a twirling dervish variety ..."


“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.”


This was the earliest documented projection of a motion picture before an audience. The Photographic Times and The New York Herald Tribune also documented the premier. Several years later, in 1916, the Richmond Palladium newspaper reviewed the accomplishment and noted that not only was this the first showing of a moving picture but in addition it was "the first exhibition of colored pictures." Each frame had been stained or colorized by hand.

Jenkins wasn't the only person who had been tinkering with "moving pictures". Several others had built contraptions which moved drawings, silhouettes or photos at a high rate of speed, giving the impression of movement. The Phantoscope was the first machine to use reeled film and electric light to project the filmed movement of an actual person...leading to what we know today as the motion picture or movie, the motion picture industry and movie theaters.

In the winter of 1894, while attending the Bliss School of Electricity in Washington, Jenkins was introduced by Mr. Bliss to Thomas Armat. Armat was looking for investment opportunities and Jenkins was in need of financing for his ideas. In Jenkins' book, The Boyhood of an Inventor he described his new partner as "a junior member of a real estate firm in Washington." The duo struck a written agreement in March of 1895 which clearly stated that Armat would "finance and promote the invention" of Jenkins'.

The two worked together in making improvements to the Phantoscope and a joint patent was applied for on August 28, 1895. The duo took three of the motion picture projectors to the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in the fall of 1895. A special building was erected for public viewing of the motion pictures, making this the first american movie theater, though temporary. The two men projected their films into two small rooms simultaneously from a single projection booth. In his autobiography Jenkins wrote: "Whatever they expected to see, it is certain they were quieted, if indeed they were not startled, by the exhibition."

Shortly after the exposition the duo split-up, quarreling over patent issues. An historic controversy and ongoing feud began but eventually this modified Phantoscope of Jenkins and Armat was patented July 20, 1897. Jenkins eventually sold his interest in the projector to Armat. Armat subsequently joined Thomas Edison, to whom he sold the rights to market the projector under the name Vitascope. With the Vitascope Edison began showing motion pictures to paying audiences at vaudeville theaters in New York City, While it began the demise of the vaudeville era, it was the beginning of the motion picture industry & public cinema. Jenkins continued to modify, enhance and patent a variety of motion picture cameras, projectors and devices that improved the filming and projection of motion pictures. He was awarded, by the Franklin Institute & Science Museum, the prestigious Elliott Cresson Gold Medal for scientific achievement in 1897 and the Scott Medal in 1913.


Jenkins quit his stenographer's job for the U.S. Government so that he could concentrate on inventing, full time. For the next several years he was occupied with a variety of inventions from containers (including the spiral-wound cardboard bisquit cans still used today) to propellers to time lapse photography. He invented an automobile with the engine in front instead of under the seat (horseless carriage) in 1898. He designed an early sight-seeing bus in 1901. Jenkins created in 1911 an early automobile self-starter and developed significant improvements to the internal combustion engine in 1912. He also created a variety of additional devices related to film, photography, film projection and the motion picture industry, including creations similar to today's DVD player ("Discrola"), FAX machine, and "instant replay" capability at sporting events ("Chronoteine Camera").

Jenkins published an article in the September 27, 1913 issue of Moving Picture News entitled "Motion Pictures by Wireless - Wonderful possibilities of Motion Picture Progress." Jenkins had developed a mechanism for viewing distant scenes by radio, or—as we now know it—television. It wasn't until ten years later that he transmitted from Washington to Philladelphia the first public demonstration in the U.S. He transmitted, by wireless, a photograph of President Harding. He went on to transmit still silhouettes, then moving silhouettes and by 1925, motion pictures. He was granted the U.S. patent No. 1,544,156 (Transmitting Pictures over Wireless) on June 30, 1925.

In 1928, the Jenkins Television Corporation opened the first commercially licensed television broadcasting station in the U.S., named W3XK, which went on air on July 2 and first sent from the Jenkins Labs in Washington and beginning in 1929 from Wheaton, Maryland on five nights a week. At first, the station could only send silhouette images due to its narrow bandwidth, but that was soon rectified and real black-and-white images were transmitted. The company began to manufacture apparatus for both transmitting and receiving. The receiving set, which people placed in their living rooms to view the entertainment, was a Radioviser. A 1930 programming schedule was announced and other manufacturers were licensed to use the patents. But, the company, trying to sell expensive novelties during the depression, could not make a profit and quickly went into receivership. In 1931, Lee de Forest, a 20th century inventor who was responsible for creating the vacuum tube and motion picture sound, acquired Jenkins Television Corporation. Eventually the company and it's television property were acquired by RCA.


C. Francis Jenkins' mechanical concept of television was eventually replaced by the electronic camera tube, developed by Philo T. Farnsworth in 1927. But before that Jenkins correctly predicted: "It will not be very long now before one may see on a small white screen in one's home notable current events, like inaugural ceremonies, ball games, pageants, as well as pantomime performance broadcast from motion-picture film."


Except among those in the science and technology arena, C. Francis Jenkins is one of the lesser known inventors of his day, though his contributions were of great importance. He acquired over 400 patents, 75 of them devoted to mechanical television alone. Many were also related to modifications he made to the motion picture projector and cameras including adapting for military and commercial use in airplanes and for ships at sea. His contributions are represented in the Smithsonian Institution. Jenkins has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He is the founder of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (now includes television, SMPTE) and served as its first President. In 1929 Jenkins returned to his hometown of Richmond, Indiana for what would be the last time, receiving an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Earlham College, which he and his father had attended. He wrote several books and magazine articles during his lifetime, most of them on the technology he developed with his inventions concerning motion pictures and television. His final book, The Boyhood of an Inventor was published in 1931, three years before his death at the age of 66. Jenkins died June 6, 1934 in Washington D.C....exactly 40 years to the day after he had projected, near his boyhood home, the first motion picture before an audience. An exit, resembling a Hollywood screenplay.

Charles Francis Jenkins was "...the only man
in history who was present at the birth
of both the motion picture and television.”
---Albert Abramson, television historian & author-- decoline

The Charles F. Jenkins Lifetime Achievement Award

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, best known for the annual Emmy Awards, remembers the contributions of Jenkins to the television industry by naming one of the academy’s most prestigious awards after him. The Charles F. Jenkins Lifetime Achievement Award is provided as a special engineering honor to an individual whose contributions over a long period of time have significantly affected the state of television technology and engineering.

”And the Emmy goes to...”


  • building
  • building
  • building

726 East Main Street, Richmond, Indiana, where C.Francis Jenkins projected the first motion picture before an audience in June 1894, still stands today. The site where his cousin owned a jewelry store, is owned by a business and is not open to the public. The above outside photo shows the facade of the building has changed from how it looked in the 1906 photo, which appears near the top of this page. The second photo shows a similar scene that Jenkins would have seen (minus the cars & tree) as he dropped an electrical line from the second story window and attached it to a trolley cable which was hoisted onto poles near the window outside. Jenkins' boyhood home, school and church also stand today, about 10 miles north of Richmond, near Fountain City, Indiana. All are privately owned.

We welcome and encourage the copying of or linking to this page. Stage One- - -The Jenkins Project