Feature | The silent film era’s greatest cameraman

A century before the GoPro camera, Billy Bitzer shot POV

The silent film era’s greatest cameraman

Written by Art Donahue


As you struggle to shoot video with your new dSLR consider Billy Bitzer’s challenges 118 years ago.

In the 1890s just a few newspapers were experimenting with publishing photographs. Professional photographers were beginning to switch from glass plate negatives to George Eastman’s cellulose film.

G. W. Billy Bitzer and Biograph Camera, 1899

Cellulose roll film enabled the invention of cinematography. By 1894, William Dickson had invented the Kinetograph 35mm motion picture camera for his boss, Thomas Edison. But Edison got the credit, the patents and the profits. Seeking his own fame and fortune, Dickson quit Edison and secretly worked on another camera. That camera, built in a rock drilling machine shop on the banks of the Erie Canal in Canastota, NY, was called the Mutograph. It was originally designed to create short films for the Mutoscope, a rotating flip-card viewer to be used in amusement centers. But during it’s development theatrical projection of these

The Mutoscope in 1899 and in 2015 at Canobie Lake Park, NH

images became possible with another Dickson invention, the Bioscope projector. The camera was renamed the Biograph. In order to work around Edison’s patents, the camera could not use 35mm perforated film. The only practical alternative was 68mm roll film made by George Eastman for his Kodak still cameras. This made the camera the “high definition” machine of the day, taking the equivalent of 30 medium-format still pictures per second, nearly double Edison’s 16 fps, but at great cost, weight and size. The camera was a large 2-foot square box with a 100-pound, 2-½ horsepower motor attached to the back, powered by an array of heavy storage batteries. It was focused using a twin-lens reflex bellows design. The film raced through the

1899 Biograph 68mm Camera

camera at five feet per second, stopped 30 times each second by “mutilated rollers” (wheels flattened on one side) which halted the film at the instant of exposure while the shutter opened and two metal teeth perforated the sides of the film. A giant rotating shutter was cleverly equipped with fan blades to blow the perforations out of the bottom of the camera. With only rubber rollers to pull the film, the registration of each image varied wildly but this was ingeniously corrected in printing by using the perforations for realignment. The film was half the thickness of Edison’s and buckled when pulled through the camera, so the aperture gate was curved to force the film to bow against an ivory pressure plate. It took two people to lift the camera and mount it on a tripod that had no pan head. The tripod sat on a turntable that could be rotated for panning. The array of heavy batteries sat on the turntable. It was a noisy, immobile monster but it worked.

“Still shot of Wm McKinley and wife” Credit : Holyoke Public Library

Abner McKinley was a stockholder in the Biograph Company and he arranged for the camera to make a test film of his brother, Republican presidential candidate William McKinley in September 1896. Dickson shot the film with his 24 year-old assistant, G.W. “Billy” Bitzer. McKinley became president and the film was shown across the country, becoming one of the earliest pieces of news cinematography. This was one of the films that made Biograph successful, as no one had ever seen a president of the United States in motion pictures. Dickson left for Rome to film the Pope.

By June 1899, Billy Bitzer was servicing Bioscope projectors and shooting local scenes in the Boston area for Keith’s Theaters when he received a telegram from the New York office. Former newspaper owner William Loomis had built a new electric incline railway and summit house on Mount Tom, high above the city of Holyoke, Massachusetts. His Holyoke Street Railway leased a Bioscope projector at the summit and Mutoscope viewing machines at Mountain Park at the base of Mt. Tom and he had invited President McKinley to come up and see the view.

Frames from Bitzer’s Biograph Film

Could Bitzer come to the summit and record the visit? The film would have great advertising value for Loomis. So on Monday, June 19, 1899, Bitzer and an assistant brought the giant camera and storage batteries up the electric cable incline and set the machine up on the western walkway of the summit house to await the President’s appearance. Bitzer must have been a bit nervous. His camera could only hold 160 feet of film, enough for just 30 seconds of action. There would only be one shot.

It was growing late in the day. His lens had only a maximum aperture of F5.6 and the very slow film needed full sunlight to record an image. If the President chose to emerge from the shady side of the building photography would be impossible. Luckily it was sunny and nearly the longest day of the year. Bitzer also was aware of the health problems of Ida McKinley, the president’s wife. He had filmed the inaugural in Washington. The couple’s only two daughters had died in infancy and Ida had developed epilepsy. She was almost always seen in public carrying flowers close to her face in case of a seizure.

After an hour of touring the summit, the president and his wife appeared on the porch and awaited Bitzer’s cue that the camera was running. Ida held flowers. Standing behind her was the president’s doctor, Presley Rixey and his wife, Earlena. The camera must have made quite a noise as it roared and spewed film perforations onto the ground. Immediately two young women jumped in front of the lens for one of motion pictures first photobombings. They were quickly yelled at and motioned away by a local policeman as the president and his wife stepped off the porch and headed towards the incline railway. Applause broke out as McKinley took off his hat and bowed his head to the crowd. As the president moved from camera right to left, Bitzer and his assistant slowly rotated the giant camera on its turntable to track him. But to Billy’s dismay, the President’s wife held the bouquet of flowers against the left side of her face, blocking the camera’s view of her for the entire sequence. Trailing behind the president, a mustached plain-closed Secret Service agent gripped a concealed weapon in his jacket pocket. Behind the agent were the Rixeys and a parade of well-dressed locals who stared in curiosity at the behemoth camera as they passed.

Abner McKinley was in the crowd. It was over in just 14 seconds. The president and his wife continued towards the railway where a still photographer had a better angle and was not blocked by Ida’s flowers. His picture made it clear that Ida was fine. She had used the flowers to block the late afternoon sunlight from her eyes. No local newspaper was capable of printing the picture back then.

No one knew it that day but the Biograph camera had recorded the end of the end of an era. Everything was about to change. One year later the Mt. Tom Summit House burned to the ground destroying its Bioscope projector and presumably a print of this film. The year following would bring the assassination of President McKinley in Buffalo, NY. An Edison cameraman was outside the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition waiting for McKinley to greet the crowd when Leon Czolgosz shot the President inside the building.

Film was made of the crowds swarming the exterior of the building as the news spread. Presley Rixley was the physician in charge for the seven days McKinley survived the attack. Ida was too distraught to attend the funeral. She died five years later. William’s brother Abner was dead within three. No longer would Secret Service protection be an event-by-event option as it was on Mt. Tom. Was the Secret Service man seen in this film present at McKinley’s murder? Congress mandated Secret Service protection at all times for future presidents after the tragedy.

Biograph and Edison cameramen filmed the funeral procession in Canton, Ohio. Large audiences crowded theaters and halls across the nation to see these films. The newsreel had come of age.

Mt. Tom Summit House, Holyoke MA 1899

But the Mt. Tom film was forgotten. The original nitrate camera negative decomposed over time. The Mutoscope flip-card reels of the McKinley visit wore out over the years. But through a quirk in the copyright laws of the era, this very rare, very early footage survived.

In order to copyright motion pictures before 1912, filmmakers had to treat movies as still photographs and make contact prints of every individual frame. They sent rolls of these paper positives to the Library of Congress where they sat neglected in storage for many years. In the 1940’s a lock was sawed off a forgotten vault at the LOC and the lost prints recovered. During the 1950s, former Los Angeles policeman Kemp Niver devised a way to re-photograph and manually align every frame of the 3,000 paper prints that survived. Using a modified copy stand and a 16mm Bolex movie camera, he and his assistants re-photographed over two million feet of paper prints frame-by-frame. It took years to accomplish and earned Niver an Academy Award.

A century before the GoPro camera, Billy Bitzer shot POV

Pioneer Biograph photographer Billy Bitzer would go on to become the silent film era’s greatest cameraman shooting D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” and many other groundbreaking films. The cinematographic techniques he and Griffith developed became the language of motion pictures used to this day. His experience was unmatched by any cinematographer of that era.

Today the old foundation of the Mount Tom Summit House houses HDTV transmitters for several Springfield, MA TV stations. Curiously, at the same time Kemp Niver was using his 16mm Bolex camera to restore the Bitzer’s Mt. Tom film in the 1950s, news photographers at the WHYN-TV studio/transmitter site, built atop the Mt. Tom Summit House ruins, were hand-processing 100-foot loads of 16mm newsfilm shot with their own Bolex cameras.

In recent years, the Library of Congress has been re-photographing the paper prints collection onto

fine-grained 35mm negative film using computer assisted registration technology for higher archival quality. Soon the full resolution and detail of these original films will be available to us all to study. Sadly, the vast majority of silent films are gone forever, victims of neglect and decomposition. Bitzer also shot “Down Mount Tom” on that trip, a point-of-view shot from the incline railway car as it descended. It was not paper printed and there is no known copy. The railway was sold for scrap metal over 75 years ago.

Mt. Tom, Holyoke MA, then and now

Amazingly, the original Mutoscope flip-card viewing machines, the beginnings of cinema, are still in operation and attracting customers at places like Canobie Lake Park in Salem, New Hampshire more than a century after their invention. Hopefully they will help inspire new generations to appreciate and preserve this unique heritage.



Art Donahue worked in local New England television for 45 years.  He was a news photographer at WWLP, Springfield, MA. WBZ Boston, MA. and WFSB Hartford, CT. For 20 years he was a Producer/Writer/Photographer/Editor at WCVB Boston’s Chronicle news magazine. He free-lanced for CBS and NBC. Art was the NPPA’s Region One TV POY for five years in the 1980s, NPPA National TV POY in 1986 and was an instructor at several NPPA TV Workshops.

A video of his TV career can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/23172298

He has created a photo history of New England broadcast/ham radio and TV on his QRZ amateur radio page: www.qrz/com/db/w1awx

A lifelong student of photography, he is currently pursuing landscape photography as a retirement project: www.artdonahue.com