This article is taken from the Journal of the SMPTE 72 (August 1963, pp. 614-621. It is posted with the kind permission of the Journal and acknowledged by the Special Collections Department, The University of Iowa Libraries among whose holdings is a collection of Victor Animatograph Co. records.


Alexander F. Victor

Motion-Picture Pioneer


The year was 1918; the place, Rochester, N.Y.; and the occasion, a meeting of the recently formed Society of Motion Picture Engineers. On this occasion Alexander F. Victor, an equipment manufacturer and an active member of the Society addressed the assemblage on the subject, "The Portable Projector; Its Present Status and Needs." (Trans. SMPE, No. 6, pp. 29-32, Apr. 1918.) In his paper, Victor made a strong plea that the Society create a new and separate standard for motion pictures used outside the theater, that is, in the nontheatrical field. Specifically he proposed a modification of the 28mm film size that had been introduced in 1912 by the French firm of Pathe Freres. Mr. Victor pointed out that if the SMPE were to adopt a standard of this type it would tend to discourage a number of manufacturers of portable projectors from using many different film sizes and would encourage a more uniform practice.

Most significantly, Victor stated that this film size should be supplied only on safety acetate support in order to reduce the hazard of its use in the home, the school and other locations where safety from fire hazards is paramount. It was a bold proposal and Victor stated later that "it took many months of the hardest kind of persuasion and work to obtain the required number of votes to secure acceptance of this proposal"(Am. Cinemat., 26: 376, Nov. 1945). A standard was adopted in April 1918 by the Society for safety standard film, 1.102 in. (28 mm) wide, for use with portable projectors.

This event indicated the deep interest of Alexander Victor in standardization related to equipment and the use of safety film for portable projection, an interest which was shown again and again throughout his life as an inventor and manufacturer.

Alexander Ferdinand Victor (Fig. 1) was born June 20, 1878, in Bollnas, a small Swedish town near the Arctic Circle. Little is known of his childhood except that his father was a Swedish Army officer, often transferred to new military posts. Thus Victor's early schooling was severely and often interrupted. He had no formal technical education, but at one point he was a student for a period under the physicist, Solemon Andree, who quickened his interest in physics and mechanics. (Professor Andree was later lost on an ill-fated balloon trip to the North Pole.)

Victor was sixteen in 1894 when he happened to attend a performance of Stephanio, a renowned magician. Intrigued by a chance to put his creative imagination to work, he joined Stephanio and soon added several illusions to the repertoire while on tour in Europe; he also became expert at slight-of-hand with cards and coins.

While Stephanio was showing in Paris in 1896, Victor saw an exhibition of motion pictures (35mm), one of the first in Europe, shown on the Lumiere Cinematographe. After much persuasion, Lumiere Freres sold him projector Number 17 and a few 15-meter films. So a few minutes showing of "movies" was added to Stephanio's magic show and made a tremendous hit. Late in 1896 Stephanio died in Cairo, Egypt. Victor successfully carried on the show, as the "Boy Wonder of Magic and Illusion," through the Near East and India until 1900, when he came to the United States. With him came the Lumiere projector.

From 1901 to 1908, Victor operated two melodrama companies, showing in small towns while building up his own magic and mystery show, which finally gained "big-circuit" time in the East where he performed as "Alexander the Great." In late 1908 all was going well until in rehearsal for a week's stand in Toledo, Ohio, he found need for another trap-door in the stage for the disppearing lion act. The manager of the new theater refused to provide it. The ensuing altercation became violent and heated, resulting in the cancellation of the week's showing. All the props were moved to a warehouse to await shipment to the next weeks stand. The warehouse burned to the ground. Victor's career as a showman was ended.

With little more than enough money to pay off the cast of twelve and send them back to New York, he joined the staff of the Toledo branch office of the White Lily Washing Machine Company of Davenport, Iowa, and became the first to motorize hand-operated clothes washing machines.

Through his experience of the last few years with the Lumiere projector he became convinced that there were other fields for motion pictures than entertainment. By working in the Edison Laboratories at East Orange, New Jersey, and with the help of a Toledo machine shop, he had the opportunity to develop his ideas for an amateur motion-picture camera and projector. He built his first model and applied for the first three patents: a spiral disc motion-picture film, a camera and projector combination and a display machine. The projector was the first to be housed in a suitcase with a carrying handle (Fig. 2).

Early Work on Projection

Late in 1909, Victor displayed his new model and explained his plan to the directors of the White Lily Company, at the home offices in Davenport, Iowa. They agreed to finance the project and put into being the New Victor Animato-Graph Co. (The company name was changed in 1915 to Victor Animatograph Co.) Operations started February 16, 1910, in the White Lily factory.

It soon became apparent that the disc device system had some inherent short-comings such as film buckling, low illumination and difficulty of procuring uniform exposures for the several scenes on each disc. Further developement was dropped in favor of another device, called the Stereotrope, which used the same intermittent pawl movement developed for the disc film machine. This projector used two circular 73 in. metal discs. One disc with 15 photographic glass transparencies mounted in apertures in the perimeter was used for "still" projection; the other an animated cartoon of 30 frames printed on gelatin, was used for motion pictures. One turn of a crank changed the still pictures or, with the 30-frame disc, rapid cranking produced a motion picture. Because the intermittent travel was the same as 35mm, short strips of standard film could be shown (Figs.3A and 3B). The Stereotrope was first marketed in December, 1910.

Illumination appeared as the big problem. The 24 c.p. G 25 carbon filament lamp was insufficient, even when used in a lamphouse with both front and rear reflectors - better than the oil-wick lamp in "Magic Lanterns" - but still not good enough (Fig. 4). The lamp manufacturers could not yet make a lamp with a greater concentration of the filament. So Victor designed a 5-ampere self-centering arc, using two cored 6-mm carbons, individually handled (Figs. 5 and 6). This first truly portable electric arc for portable projectors or stereopticons produced a concentrated and intense source of illumination. This lamp was used on several successive projectors: the Stereotrope, an opaque (post card) projector; the Viopticon, a standard 31 by 4-in. stereopticon; and later on 35mm motion-picture projectors, until the introduction of the highly efficient 30-volt, 20-ampere Mazda lamp.

The Viopticon, the first truly portable stereopticon, introduced in 1912, used a single-glass slide, with an outside measurement of 21 by 21 in., mounted in an embossed pressboard frame. No cover glass was used, the emulsion side being coated with a flint-hard collodion base coating which resisted scratches. It was practically unbreakable and very light in weight. This slide was the forerunner of the 35mm, 2 by 2-in. slides used today. A library of slide sets was created with several religious, educational and fraternal "illustrated lectures." Slides supplied were black-and-white or hand-colored and in either Viopticon or standard 3 1/4 by 4 in. sizes.

Stereopticons, for standard slides were bulky and heavy, using big arc lamps or oxy-hydrogen "lime" lights. Victor's entry in 1912 was the first really light-weight standard stereopticon - an all cast-aluminum, cylindrically shaped instrument, using the Victor electric arc later adapted to the new coil-coil tungsten Mazda (250- and 500-w) lamp.

The 28mm Era

During this period of creating an efficient illuminant for still projection,Victor was following through on his main objective: designing lightweight motion-picture equipment. His first offering was a 35mm "beater movement" projector, again using the Victor arc with rheostats supplying 5, 10 or 15 amps. Illumination for an 8- to 10-ft projected picture was excellent. This projector was shown at one of the first conventions of the National Photo Dealers Association, held in 1914. The response was enthusiastic. But the shortcomings of the beater movement soon became apparent. 

Victor then began designing another 35mm projector with a three-point-star Geneva Movement, "fire-proof magazines" and an ingenious lantern slide attachment with a self-adjusting condensing lens system. (Lantern slides were still a requisite. No program was complete without song slides and announcements - the "Ladies Please Remove Your Hats" era.) This projector, introduced in 1915, satisfied the nontheatrical user for picture size, quality and portability, but the danger of fire while handling became an insurmountable hazard, which Victor foresaw would severely limit the growth of the market. 

Then began Victor's crusade to establish a new standard of film, one which by agreement with the film-makers, would be supplied only in cellulose acetate stock, safe from fire danger and thereby not requiring the protection of the fire-proof booth. 35mm motion pictures could be printed on "safety" film, but the user could not be depended upon to show only film with the word "safety" printed on the edge.

The new standard, he argued, must be of such dimensions that 35mm nitrate film could not be split or trimmed economically to match the new size. He was supported by one projector manufacturer, Pathescope, but was bitterly opposed by all others.

Prior to World War I the French Pathescope, with a library of 28mm non-inflammable film was introduced to the United States and Canadian markets. When importations of projectors was cut off after the war started in Europe, Victor designed and built, in 1917, the Victor Safety Cinema to use this 28mm film, which appealed to him as the answer to the hazard problem. Victor redesigned the Pathescope film only to the extent of using three perforations on each side of the frame instead of the original three and one. As previously noted, he presented a paper in 1918 to the Society of Motion Picture engineers exposing the hazards involved in using 35mm nitrate film in schools, and churches and elsewhere without booth protection and urged the adoption of 28mm safety film by the SMPE as a new standard.

In the Safety Cinema, Victor used a conventional four-point star and cam and an intermittent sprocket that used both Pathescope film and the new standard (Fig. 7). Illumination was satisfactorily produced by a new concentrated 28-32 volt, 165-w filament lamp. Victor found it practical to operate incandescent lamps at higher-than-rated voltage to gain the needed increase in light intensity. Lamp manufacturers opposed this procedure, but it soon became common practice, although it decreased lamp life from 100 hours to only ten or twelve.

Then Victor began a persistent effort to induce film producers to supply 28mm prints from 35mm negatives. But the producers would have no part of the program. The first favorable break came when George K. Spoor (Essanay) and George Kleine, both pioneers of the exhibition industry, agreed to furnish a limited number of pictures. To facilitate the creation of a supply of subjects, Victor built the first continous reduction printer and offered it to the industry (Fig. 8). (See Transaction of SMPTE No. 9, pp. 34-36 Oct. 1919.)

He set up a print reduction laboratory in Chicago. But it was a lone and ultimately futile effort. There was no sufficient Supply of suitable classified subjects on which to build a new industry among schools, churches and institutional users. Here was a market of great potentials unsatisfied. Sales of projectors ebbed. Film rawstock was comparatively too expensive and the project did not have the blessing of the film producers. The whole movement died "aborning."

In an attempt to salvage the 28mm libraries with a very low-priced projector, in 1920 Victor produced the Victor Home Cinema, a horizontal hand-driven projector (Fig. 9). It was a futile attempt to keep 28mm alive.

During the calm between the 28mm era and the entry of a new safety standard that the whole industry would support, Victor was busy on other projects. Among these were attachments for the Stereopticon line: an attachment for using 35mm film strips (the fore-runner of the film strip projector) and for micro slides, a 35mm still film magazine-load camera, spot and flood lights for photographers, and other items.


Advent of 16mm and Sound 

Then came the climax - the millennium. In January, 1923, Eastman Kodak Company announced a new film, 16mm wide developed by a reversal process, as well as equipment for use with it (Trans. SMPE, No. 16, pp. 252-258, May 1923; see also Jour. SMPTE 64: 105-116, Mar. 1955). Victor did not await the reactions of the few other manufacturers. He immediately began designing a 16mm camera and companion projector, both hand-driven. Again sessions of twenty to thirty hours at a stretch became routine.

Production started early in 1923. A camera and a projector were offered to the trade simultaneously, with the first advertisement appearing in the Davenport, Iowa, newspapers on August 12, 1923 (Fig. 10), quickly followed by ads in the few trade journals. The response was instantaneous, but the first dealers demanded a guarantee that continuing film supply was available -- or "money back."

Thomas Willard (Willard Storage Battery Co.) was one of the first purchasers. He added a compartment on the back of the Victor camera for a special little storage battery and fitted a tiny motor to the mechanism. He urged Victor to produce the first electrically driven camera. Only a few were made, for the batteries discharged too fast and they leaked. It was a short-lived model.

Within the year following Kodak's and Victor's hand-driven camera offerings, another manufacturer had the audacity to introduce a hand-held spring-driven camera. It was a success. So Victor started all over again, and in mid-1925 came out with a new model, spring-actuated camera (Fig. 11A), and a motorized projector. Victor claimed three 16mm "firsts" - a three-lens turret; variable speeds, 8, 16, 24, and 64 frames/sec; and reverse action for lap dissolves (Fig. 11B).

Victor cameras and projectors (Fig. 12) found a wide domestic and foreign market, chiefly in the amateur bracket, though projectors began finding acceptance in the school field. Victor's dreams of filling a void in the educational, religious and industrial markets began coming true. Films were becoming available: Kodascope Libraries, Erpi Class-room Films, Home Film Libraries, and a few others.

Sound-on-disc came into being in 1929-1930. Not to be outdone Victor quickly produced his first sound projector employing a vertical turntable with a floating pendulum tone-arm, mounted on a rocker support. The pickup maintained a vertical position in the groove clear across the record (Fig. 13). It performed beautifully.

Production tooling was completed just before optical track sound-on-film appeared. Sound-on-disc was not even competitive with the newcomer. Victor met the challenge by presenting his first sound-on-film projector early in 1933 (Fig. 14). Outstanding innovations were a stationary sound drum and a free running, fly-wheel-loaded impedance or drag roller. Another feature was a cylindrical sound optic developing a parallel beam of light through the sound track, not requiring any refocussing adjustment for the track on either surface of reversible or printed positive film.

Sound-on-film was the answer to the nontheatrical users objections and problems. Hundreds of film subjects became available to business, educational and many other fields. In a remarkably short period thousands of films came into existence, but practically none from the theatrical film producers. To them the film was too small for big-screen projection and the reduced size and comparatively slow movement across the sound gate would not do justice to the quality of 35mm soundtracks.

It took World War II to force upon the film industry realization that 16mm was fully capable of doing the job of instructing and entertaining the inductees of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

At the beginning of the War the projector makers were called to Washington to discuss the raw material situation. One speaker, an Air Force officer, told the group that the "red-school house" method of education would serve the training program as it always had, that the need was guns and ammunition -- not movie outfits.

It was announced that no aluminum or brass would be alloted to this industry -- that all manufacturers were to repossess projectors from industries and other users of large numbers of projectors to supply the government with the quantity it might need. That would be ample, so it was said -- and converting the plants to making war materials was in order. Victor promptly proceeded to change to using cast iron in place of aluminum. In spite of added weight, Victor's production continued, along with war materials.

Suddenly the demand broke loose. All branches of the armed services demanded more projectors than all the factories could supply. All production materials were soon given high priority. The film producers were called upon to supply 16mm prints of even late releases, for entertainment of the services. Production of 16mm training films moved into high gear. Studios, processing laboratories, libraries, mushroomed into action.

Postwar Years

Thus 16mm came into it's own as the undisputed standard for all nontheatrical service, went into fields of usefulness far beyond the constantly expanding horizons that Victor originally envisioned in 1912.

During the several pauses between designing and producing major equipments, and after 16mm was established as an industry in it's own right, Victor was busy on several variations of cameras and projectors for specialized uses: arc lamps, continuous projection, amplifiers, advertising display devices, color photography and projection, and magnetic record and playback. In his fifty-two years of activity Victor created more than 150 different models of picture-taking and projection equipment and applied for eighty-six patents (see Table 1) all but a few of which were issued. Considering the limited facilities at his disposal in the early days, Victor was a wizard at coming up with a new model as the need arose.

Sixteen-millimeter is an industry pioneered by the amateur and one which expanded into ail-embracing fields of industry, science, government, education, and entertainment.

Now the story may be repeating itself with 16mm being time-tested in the amateur market. Perhaps the film aperture is able to produce a screen image of acceptable size and the soundtrack, magnetic or optical, may be large enough and sufficiently fast to reproduce good sound. Nothing seems to be impossible in this age.

Victor craved a part in the evolution of 8mm. His last project, a new type of 8mm camera and projector, was far from finished at the time of his last illness. At the age of eighty-two years and nine months he died at his home in Carmel, California, on March 29,1961. Victor had a long and active association with the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. He joined the Society in 1916 (the year it was founded) and remained a member until his death. Although his name does not appear on the original Certificate of Incorporation, it is listed in the first published list of officers and committees, published in October, 1916, where his second initial is incorrectly given as "S" rather than "F." In October, 1918, he was elected to the Board of Governors and he served as Secretary of the Society from 1919-1921. H was a Vice-President in 1923-1925. He also served on many committees including Projection, Theater Equipment, Film Perforations, Patents, Standards, Progress and Membership. For many years he took an active part in the discussions following presentation of technical papers.

When nearly 80, Victor summarized his early life (in a letter to John McCullough, then Chairman of the Historical and Museum Committee) by saying that he had been an "exhibitor, camera-man, producer, studio owner, script writer and twice an actor." He could have added inventor, designer and manufacturer. Victor had an insatiable enthusiasm and prophetic vision for designing and building equipment to meet the needs of the time in the rapidly changing field of nontheatrical equipment. In the early years of this development, 1918-1921, he fought and won a battle for the adoption of a safety standard for 28mm film. He very quickly recognized in 1923 the importance of the new 16mm reversal film and predicted a great future for it. His interest and enthusiasm never waned and he met "head-on" each new challenge presented to him by designing and producing apparatus to satisfy the needs of the amateur, of industry, of education, and Of government. Even in the closing years of his life his active mind continued to keep abreast of the times and he applied for patents and wrote articles, one of which, on a "Multicolor Televisor," was submitted and read at the SMPTE meeting in Detroit in October, 1958. Alexander Victor played an important part in the birth and growth of the nontheatrical motion-picture industry.


Table 1. U.S. Patents Issued to Alexander F. Victor. A few patents unrelated to motion pictures or projection are not included.

 U.S. Patent No.: Description; Date of Application; Date Issued

42496: Stereotrope Design; 12/9/11; 5/7/13

45133: Stereopticon Design; 2/3/13; 1/6/14

47938: Lantern Slide Design; 4/12/15; 11/5/15

74639: 35mm Still Camera Design (Motion-Picture Film); 6/24/26; 3/6/28

78991: Design for Miniature Theatre; 12/15/24; 7/16/29

91722: Victor Trade Mark (Original); 1/30/13; 5/20/13

95689: Viopticon Trade Mark 11/24/13; 3/3/14

324,446: Victor Trade Mark; 5/21/35

382,026: Film Tension Control (British); 9/14/31

386,360: Shutter Control (British); 9/8/31

388,098: Speed Control (British); 9/8/31

976,954: Spiral Motion-Picture Projector; 2/4/10 11/29/10

1,019,931: Spiral Motion-Picture Film; 1/28/10; 3/12/12

1,019,932: Spiral Film Display Machine; 2/23/10; 3/12/12

1,027,576: Optical Toy 4/11/08; 5/28/12

1,062,622: Cylindrical Stereopticon; 2/26/12; 5/27/13

1,063,401: Lamp House With Double Reflector; 12/9/11; 6/3/13

1,084,678: Arc Opaque Projector; 11/15/11; 1/20/14

1,096,873: Stereotrope Record; 1/13/12; 5/19/14

1,198,682: Safety Device for Motion-Picture Film 35mm; 3/23/16; 9/19/16

1,198,683: Geneva Movement--3Point; 3/23/16; 9/19/16

1,212,853: Combination Motion-Picture and Slide Optical System; 3/23/16; 1/16/17

1,227,507: Viopticon; 2/26/14; 5/22/17

1,231,974: Dissolving Stereopticon; 5/3/17; 7/3/17

1,322,658: Framing Mechanism; 3/23/16; 11/25/19

1,364,967: Variable Rheostat Control; 7/17/19; 1/11/21

1,478,806: Wireless Tel. Lecture System; 3/l/22; 12/25/23

1,534,044: Camera Crank and Clutch; 12/10/23; 4/21/25

1,559,815: Proj. Film Tension and Framer; 12/10/23; 11/3/25

1,589,493: Stercoscreen; 2/12/23; 6/22/26

1,625,065: Cine Proj. Intermittent12/10/23 4/19/27

1,666,077: Still Camera Film Container; 6/24/26; 4/17/28

1,682,873: Still Camera Mechanism; 6/24/26; 9/4/28

1,706,089: Cine Camera Film Mechanism; 12/10/23; 3/19/29

1,755,280: Miniature Theatre Film Mechanism; 12/15/24; 4/22/30

1,781,937: Film Sprocket (Single Flange); 7/18/29; 11/18/30

1,812,068: Film Measure (Camera); 5/17/29; 6/30/31

1,817,217: Film Spool; 10/12/27; 8/4/31

1,824,519: Reel Shaft and Clutch; 4/24/30; 9/22/31

1,825,253: Camera Governor and Mechanism; 1/21/29; 9/29/31

1,825,254: Intermittent Shuttle Mechanism (Projector); 4/24/30; 9/29/31

1,830,816: Speed Control (Camera); 12/l/27; 11/10/31

1,855,267: Adjustable Reel Arms; 4/24/30; 4/26/32

1,855,268: Adjustable Film Tension Control (Camera); 7/18/29; 4/26/32

1,855,269: Viewfinder and Leveler; 12/l/27; 4/26/32

1,918,724: Proj. Pictures in Colors; 2/3/33; 7/18/33

1,923,855: Spur to prevent back-up; 12/l/27; 8/22/33

1,930,544: Vertical Record; 1/26/31; 10/17/33

1,933,400: Rocker Type Pickup; 9/28/31; 10/31/33

2,018,043: Sound-on-Disc Animatophone; 1/8/31; 10/22/35

2,019,280: Sound Recording-Aerial Image; 9/14/34; 10/29/35

2,058,193: Safety Film Trip; 8/10/34; 10/20/36

2,070,325: Swing-out-Lens Mount; 1/3/36; 2/9/37

2,087,863: Sharp Removable Carrying Case Top; 12/9/35; 7/20/37

2,120,476: Safety Inertia Loop; 4/25/35; 6/14/38

2,344,574: Cam Flywheels and Shutters for Motion-Picture Apparatus; 3/21/44

2,341,301: Impedance or Drag for Projectors; 2/8/44

2,364,495: Adjustable Sound Optics for Cine Projectors; 12/5/44

2,382,116: Mountings for Motion-Picture Sound Projectors; 12/24/43; 8/14/45

2,521,427: Spindle (Reel Arm); 11/28/45; 9/5/50

2,589,319: Portable Sounding Device; 1/28/46; 3/18/52