Thesis ID: CBB940002686

Seeing Through Silver: A Chemical History of Moving Images, 1880–1950 (2023)


“Seeing through Silver” is a history of nitrate motion picture film, the substance that made cinema possible. Long seen as immaterial, motion pictures were in fact made of a combustible combination of cotton, cow hide, and silver. Most of the world’s supply was produced by its inventor, Eastman Kodak, in Rochester, New York. The project follows Kodak’s nitrate film across time and space, from cinema’s origins in the late 19th century until the cessation of its manufacture in the middle of the 20th century. Working to stabilize a flammable material and standardize the images it produced, Kodak prized purity and control; chasing the constant future growth it promised investors, Kodak sought mass production methods for film that could be scaled without limit. The drive to control film’s volatility, within Kodak and without, helped at once to define Kodak and to constitute cinema itself. Drawing on Kodak’s corporate archives and New York City’s municipal archives, as well as personal correspondence, legal records, and published material, “Seeing through Silver” traces the imperial extraction of film’s ingredients, the toxic work of their combination, and the dangerous lives film led once used to make and exhibit motion pictures. The first two chapters follow the origins of celluloid film and the diverse stories of the extraction of its raw materials. The third chapter uncovers the importance of Kodak’s continuous flow method of making film to the history of cinema and of Kodak. The final chapter follows how the earliest efforts to regulate cinema were linked to the flammability of celluloid. Along the way, “Seeing through Silver” introduces chemical engineers, frustrated workers, managerial technocrats, Progressive urban reformers and the controlling personality of George Eastman himself. In telling the story of celluloid through Kodak, this project follows an ongoing struggle, which saw industrial corporate demands for control and for growth pitted against the volatility, mystery, and spontaneity of the world itself. Celluloid exemplifies what industrial capitalism could not control or suppress—the workings of chance and the mysteries of matter.

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Authors & Contributors
Ball, Edward
Baturin, Yu. M.
Boyd, Jane E.
Dixon, Robert
Gunning, Tom
Hilderbrand, Lucas
Technology and Culture
Chemical Heritage
Comparative Studies in Society and History
Journal of the History of the Neurosciences
Nineteenth-Century Contexts
VIET: Voprosy Istorii Estestvoznaniia i Tekhniki
University of California, Irvine
Yale University
Anthem Press
Department of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry, Eindhoven Technical University
MA, Belknap Press
Film, photographic
Motion pictures; cinema; movies
Science and art
Technology and culture
Daguerre, Louis Jacques Mandé
Hitler, Adolf
Muybridge, Eadweard
Niépce, Jospeh Nicéphore
Stanford, Leland
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
20th century
18th century
20th century, late
Qing dynasty (China, 1644-1912)
United States
Soviet Union
Eastman Kodak Company
Bellevue Hospital
Army Medical Museum (U.S.)

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