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History of the Film Reel

By Katy Sommerfeld

In today’s modern world of smartphones and self-driving cars, it’s hard to imagine that only a few decades ago, a lot of the technology we have now didn’t even exist.

In fact, some entire fields and industries of technology weren’t even invented yet!
The motion-picture film industry didn’t exist until the 1890s, less than 130 years ago! And it wasn’t until decades later that films represented anything remotely close to the technology we have today. 


Considering how advanced our film industry is today, it’s crazy to think about how much work went into creating a two-minute-long, low-quality, black-and-white clip when motion-picture filming was first invented. It’s even crazier imagining the process of inventing motion-picture cameras and film reels that could capture video content.

So, how did the film reel come about?

Humble Beginnings

While we have a date for when the first motion picture was captured, there is not a definitive date for the invention of the film reel. We can assume that shortly after the invention of motion-picture cameras and film, film reels were invented to hold the lengthy rolls of film required to produce even the shortest films. Thomas Edison is often credited with inventing the first camera made solely for motion-picture filming. This camera came about in 1892, and by 1894 the public had access to films produced by this type of camera. Edison’s camera had two reels sitting atop it, so it seems that film reels were invented alongside motion-picture cameras.

While the first motion-picture camera was invented in 1892, the first motion picture came earlier. The earliest surviving motion-picture sequence is known as the Roundhay Garden Scene and was produced in 1888 by Louis LePrince. He recorded the film on his single-lens camera. The “film” is only 2.11 seconds long, but because it shows a sequence of moving pictures, it is considered the first film. It features a garden outside an English estate with men and women mulling about. The film is 52 frames in length.

Film’s Hey Day

From its inception in the late 1800s to the 1990s, motion-picture film was the reigning medium for creating moving picture entertainment. Everything was recorded onto film reels, from TV shows to feature films and more. If you went to the movies, you were watching film reels projected onto the big screen. A projectionist would be in charge of switching reel to reel as each one ended. Film ruled the entertainment industry. 

Nothing Lasts Forever

Once digital cameras were invented, the film industry began transitioning from using film reels to recording scenes digitally. The first movie recorded and produced digitally was Windhorse in 1996. Once this happened, it wasn’t long until practically every movie was produced digitally. 

Today, film reels are symbols of the rich history of motion-picture technology. While they may not be in much use anymore, many production companies are still storing their old film reels for history’s sake. Many people own film reels at home as well, usually depicting family gatherings from the past and big life events. 

If you have film reels at home, why not send them to Southtree for digitization? Chances are you aren’t watching them on a projector in the basement. Don’t let those artifacts of your family’s history go to waste! 

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