Quick, think of a movie star.  Who is it?  George Clooney? Dwayne Johnson? Jennifer Lawrence?  It’s a good bet that the name Fred Ott didn’t cross your mind!  Yet Fred was the world’s first movie star.  He didn’t make a lot of money, he wasn’t besieged by autograph hounds, he didn’t make the cover of the tabloids … in fact all he did was sneeze!  But that sneeze in 1889 was captured on the world’s first movie film and the era of the cinema was under way. 

Fred Ott was actually a nondescript worker in Thomas Edison’s laboratory in New Jersey. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time when Edison and his co-worker William Dickson began to tinker with the idea of moving pictures. Still photography, based on the sensitivity of silver compounds to light, was already a well- established process.  The concept of moving pictures, however, had to wait until George Eastman, the founder of the Kodak company, developed flexible roll film. This breakthrough hinged upon a clever use of one of the most famous substances ever to come out of a chemical laboratory, the world’s first plastic, christened “celluloid”.

Eastman found that the use of the solvent amyl acetate, known today as “banana oil” and widely used in the cleaning industry, allowed celluloid to be spread into a thin layer which dried to form a flexible sheet.  This could then be cut, coated with photosensitive compounds and rolled up into film. Once celluloid film became available, Edison’s ingenuity came to the fore. Not only was he a great inventor, he was also remarkably skilled at improving upon other peoples’ inventions. Unfortunately, the “Wizard of Menlo Park” was somewhat less skilled at giving credit where credit was due. In any case, Edison developed a camera capable of moving the flexible film past a shutter which opened and closed at the remarkable rate of 48 times a second. Thus Fred Ott’s sneeze was recorded for all posterity in stunning detail.


Photo credit: Brianboru100

As brilliant as Edison was, he didn’t believe in projected movies, a mistake which eventually would cost him dearly, both in terms of prestige and money. He thought the greatest success for flicks would be in coin operated individual viewers he called Kinetoscopes. He envisaged potential customers forming long lines to view “The Sneeze” and other classics such as “Fun in a Chinese Laundry”. The Kinetoscope did enjoy some success in peepshow arcades but it was soon replaced by projected moving pictures developed by the Lumière brothers in France. These, like the “sneeze” were also recorded on celluloid film. So it is not surprising that the heyday of movies became known as the celluloid age and film stars as “celluloid personalities”.

Indeed, celluloid gave birth to the movie industry, but the birth of the material itself could well form the basis of a feature film. The heroes are a Swiss chemistry professor, Friedrich Schonbein and an American inventor John Wesley Hyatt. In 1846, in Basel, Switzerland, Schonbein carried out an experiment in which cotton was treated with a mixture of nitric and sulphuric acids. There seemed to be nothing remarkable about the washed and dried product; in fact, the cotton looked just like it had before the experiment.  But Schonbein was taken aback when he put a lit match to the stuff. It flared up and vanished in a brilliant smokeless flame, leaving no residue. 

Here, instantly in the chemist’s mind, was the solution to the problem of smoke filled battlefields where soldiers couldn’t see what they were shooting at.  Although black powder — the classic mix of sulphur, charcoal and saltpetre (potassium nitrate) — could certainly propel bullets well enough, its lingering offensive smoke choked soldiers and gave away their position. Could guncotton, as the explosive new substance came to be called, replace black powder? A series of experiments with nitric acid and cellulose, the basic component of cotton, followed. It soon became clear that by varying the amounts of reagents the reaction could be controlled to produce guncotton with the desired rate of burning.  But how could this be converted into a powder which could be packed into the barrel of a gun?

Perhaps if the right solvent were found to dissolve the nitrated cellulose, it could be crystallized, like sugar from water.  But the nitrated cellulose did not crystallize. When the solvent in which it would easily dissolve, a mixture of ether and alcohol, evaporated, a clear plasticky film was left behind. It took some forty years to develop the technology to convert this residue into gunpowder, but the film left behind after the evaporation process did find an instant use.

A Boston medical student by the name of J. Parker Maynard suggested that this “sticking plaster” could be used as a waterproof coating on cuts and surgical wounds.  Indeed, a solution of nitrated cellulose in ether-alcohol came to be known as “collodion” and found widespread use as the first “band aid”. Just imagine people’s amazement when they applied the viscous solution to their cuts and watched as it turned into a clear, waterproof dressing!

 Marcel Oosterwijk from Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Photo credit: Marcel Oosterwijk from Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Photo credit: Ivan2010