The very first films, made in the late 19th century, were shorts. At first they were viewed through peephole machines in arcades. Only one person at a time could use the peepholes. Later, these shorts were shown in vaudeville halls, then in theaters called nickelodeons. Nickelodeons sat around one hundred people and presented films of about fifteen minutes to an hour long. A live piano player would provide the music.
One of the most famous short films was the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at a Station, made in 1895, which describes the action perfectly. The audience, unused to the idea of film, thought an actual train was barreling into the theater and some of them fled in terror. The Lumieres called these short films actualits, which were film shorts about real life events.
Thomas Edison’s film company also produced these short films, including Fred Otts’ Sneeze from 1891 and The Kiss from 1896. The short films became even more sophisticated after the turn of the 20th century, when Edwin S. Porter was hired for the Edison Company and made two famous shorts, The Life of An American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery. These were important films because they offered examples of the new technique of crosscutting, and the close up.