The Sneeze Felt Round the World

On this day in 1894, Fred Ott sneezed. Or he sneezed at least once. He did take a puff of snuff before sneezing, and I imagine snuff must be hell on the nasal passages. So maybe Fred Ott sneezed 100 times on January 7, 1894  – we’ll never know. But we do know he sneezed at least once. How do we know this? Because Fred Ott sneezed while in the employ of the Edison Manufacturing Company, where apparently even your sneezes belong to the boss.

On the very next business day, January 9 to be precise, the Edison Manufacturing Company registered a copyright for “The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze.”  So today, the little blip of Mr. Fred Ott dipping snuff and sneezing is the earliest surviving copyrighted film we have.

The 45 paper prints used to file the copyright.According to The Library of Congress, “The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze” is but one of a series of short films shot by Edison’s assistant W.K.L. Dickson throughout January 1894 as part of an advertising campaign. Also according to the The Library of Congress, Fred Ott was known around the lab as “The Fredster.” Okay, I made that part up, but he was apparently known to be a jokey sort of guy and did a lot of sneezing for comic effect. So voila… a star was born.

“Fred Ott’s Sneeze,” as the film is more commonly known these days, always reminds me a bit of the old saw about travelling back in time and stepping on a butterfly. A sneeze is such a mundane thing and such a silly thing. Yet “The Fredster” sneezed on a cold day in January and the world was introduced to motion pictures. The world was also introduced to copyrights attached to motion pictures, even silly ones like a guy sneezing. Hindsight being 20/20, Fred Ott sneezed into being  a sticky-wicket that would completely alter the landscape of filmmaking a few years later when Thomas Edison dragged the court systems into his own squabbles. Many fine filmmakers will eventually fall by the way just because they didn’t have the good sense to copyright their lab assistant’s bodily functions.

But that was neither here nor there on January 7, 1894. That day, Fred Ott hammed it up for the camera, took a pinch of snuff, and sneezed. Gezundheit, Fred Ott!

Don’t miss the excitement! Watch Fred Ott sneeze.

About prettycleverfilmgal

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films. I often watch, consider, and write about movies when I should really be doing other things.

Posted on January 7, 2012, in Genre, Silent Film and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Funny to me how the first motion picture is of an involuntary bodily reflex supposedly similar to an orgasm (though the idea of a sneeze being “1/7th of an orgasm” is an urban legend according to snopes). The sneeze also seems uncanny as a symbol of the movies’ power of artistic catharsis, of emotional release. I like to imagine how the whole technological evolution of the species led up to this one singular event of being able to record some guy sneezing. What a relief! Not that this could have been foreseen back in 1894, but it’s also ironic given how sitting in a darkened theatre with strangers when we go to the movies involves the tacit social agreement to collectively suppress certain bodily functions for two hours (farting, sneezing, coughing, etc.) and how relieved people are when the credits roll and they can make a B line for the can!

  2. All very excellent points. What gets me about the earliest earlies like Mr. Ott’s Sneeze is the sheer delight in the novelty of it all, and how much that novelty still translates. If you think about it, a sneeze is a really dramatic event. It’s kind of perfect cinema… the set up (snuff), the rising action (deep breath in), the climax (achoo!), and the falling action (sniffle)… all in 7 seconds!

  1. Pingback: Day 7: Allergies and Brain Protests | Sneaking into Mr. McGregor's Garden

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