Giuseppe Sacco Albanese

Maltese electrical engineer, subject of some of the first Edison film experiments

Sacco Albanese was born in Conspicua, Malta, one of seventeen children of Vincenzo Sacco and Rosa Albanese, adopting both surnames in adulthood. Trained as an electrical fitter and clearly a young man of ambition, on 15 January 1890 he wrote to Thomas Edison asking if there might be a position for him at the inventor's laboratory. A reply was sent in the negative, but Sacco Albanese crossed the Atlantic anyway, and by August 1890 the eighteen-year-old was working as a machinist at Orange. At this time W.K-L Dickson was conducting the first Edison experiments in capturing motion on celluloid film. The subjects of these first films were Edison staff members, picked for their liveliness of manner, and Sacco Albanese was among them (others included Jimmy Duncan, Fred Devonald, Fred Ott and Dickson himself).

In 1933 Dickson wrote about these experiments, recalling that "a bright sunny-natured Greek [sic], Sacco Albanese by name, was one of my very earliest victims, figuring mostly in the 1/4-inch, and later in the 1/2-inch, pictures. Draped in white, he was made to go through some weird antics". From this it is usually assumed that he was the subject of the so-called 'Monkeyshines' experiments in which microscopic images were photographed on celluloid film wrapped round a cylinder, similar to that of a Phonograph, because Edison was seeking the synchronisation of motion pictures with his audio invention. These images survive, but are so small, and with so little detail, that it is not possible to discern a recognisable face from the figure seen dressed in white and waving his arms about. Gordon Hendricks dates these experiments to the week of 21-27 November 1890. However Paul Spehr argues that no cylinder experiments were conducted at this time, having been replaced by the work on strip film which eventually would lead to the Kinetoscope. He suggests that the cylinder images date from 1889, when Dickson first tried out the cylinder method with sheet celluloid supplied by John Carbutt. If this is the case, then Sacco Albanese is not the figure on the Monkeyshines but was the subject of some of the first strip film experiments, though any examples that featured him do not survive. Charles Musser, however, agrees with Hendricks, in which case the ghostly Monkeyshines images do show Sacco Albanese.

Sacco Albanese left Edison in April 1891 and went on to work as an electrical engineer in the USA and Venezuela, before moving to France in 1896. He had some involvement in the electrification of tramways, before becoming chief electrical engineer at Thomson-Houston Electrical Light Works in Nice. He subsequently ran his own electrical engineering business in Paris. Whether or not he is the 'star' of the Monkeyshines cylinder experiments (of which there are three) he was undoubtedly the subject of some of the earliest known motion pictures shot on celluloid film.

Luke McKernan (2013)