As sons of a photographic equipment manufacturer and supplier, Auguste and Louis were constantly surrounded by photography and art and developed an intelligence for technology at an early age. Born in Besançon, France, Auguste (born October 19, 1862) and Louis (born October 5, 1864) moved to Lyon, France in 1870 and attended La Martiniere, the largest technical school in the city. Both brothers also worked in their father’s photographic firm, Auguste as a manager and Louis as a physicist.
While working with his father, Claude-Antoine Lumiére, Louis began experimenting with the equipment and discovered a new ‘dry plate’ process in 1881, which largely assisted the development of photography.
Louis worked on the problem of commercially satisfactory development of film; at 18 he had succeeded so well that with his father’s financial aid he opened a factory for producing photographic plates, which gained immediate success. By 1894 the Lumières were producing some 15 million plates a year. Because of the new photography process, the Lumiéres became well-known businessmen and Auguste was invited to a demonstration of Thomas Edison’s Peephole Kinetoscope in Paris.
Auguste reported the device and its functions to the family, and they quickly went to work on ways to improve the instrument. The brothers identified the two main problems with Edison’s Kinetoscope as its bulk and the issue of only one viewer being able to observe the scene at a time. Solving the problems Edison encountered, the brothers invented the cinématographe, a device combining a camera with a printer and projection as well as the function to produce intermittent movement in order to display motion pictures for an audience. This technique was the patented in 1895. The device was lightweight, operated by a hand crank, and available for multiple viewers to watch at one time. A month later, they screened their first short film, La Sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lemiére, which depicted workers leaving a factory and was considered the first motion picture.
At that time they attached less importance to this invention than to improvements they had made simultaneously in colour photography. But on Dec. 28, 1895, a showing at the Grand Café on the boulevard des Capucines in Paris brought wide public acclaim and the beginning of cinema history.
The Lumière apparatus consisted of a single camera that used for both photographing and projecting at 16 frames per second. Their first films (they made more than 40 during 1896) recorded everyday French life—e.g., the arrival of a train, a game of cards, a toiling blacksmith, the feeding of a baby, soldiers marching, the activity of a city street. Others were early comedy shorts. The Lumières presented the first newsreel, a film of the French Photographic Society Conference, and the first documentaries, four films about the Lyon fire department. Beginning in 1896 they sent a trained crew of innovative cameraman-projectionists to cities throughout the world to show films and shoot new material.
In the following years, the brothers began creating more motion pictures and patented several film processes, including film perforations, which served as a means for advancing film through the projector and by the 1890s, Lumiére and Sons was the second leading photographic company in the world (Eastman Kodak was the first). During 1896, they created more than 40 films that significantly influenced pop culture, including the documentation of common French life, comedy shorts, the first newsreel, and the first documentaries. In addition to their films, they also trained a team of cameramen to travel around the world to show their films and capture new material. They opened cinématographe theaters in London, Brussels, Belgium and New York and their film catalogues continued to grow, reaching over 2,000 films in the 1900s.
After all of their film development and success, the brothers decided to return their focus to photography, as they believed “the cinema is an invention without any future”. By 1907, they produced the first practical color photography process, known as the “Autochrome Lumiere”. The Lumiére Company continued to be a major supplier of photographic products throughout Europe during the 20th century. Following their photographic inventions and productions, Louis focused his interest in stereoscopy, or 3-D imaging, and stereoscopic films throughout the 1930s, while Auguste focused on medical research including studies on tuberculosis and cancer. After leading lives filled with radical inventions and accomplishments, Louis passed away on June 6, 1948 and Auguste followed on April 10, 1954. Today the Musee Lumiere at the Institut Lumiere, a museum exhibiting the accomplishments of the brothers, is housed on the site of the Lumiére factories in Lyon, France.
Although they were not the first and only inventors to make progress towards motion pictures, the Lumiére brothers’ understanding of the technology and skill needed provided them with the ability to make astounding advances in the cinematography and photography worlds.