You might think early movies got called “flickers” and then “flicks” because they flicked through a series of images. Not true. What gave movies their nickname was a bug, not a feature. Learn about the outdated technology that made the images flicker far more than they should have.

We can watch early movies, but we don’t really get the same effect that the original audiences in the theater had. It’s not that early films are damaged—although sometimes they are—it’s that they are never shown on their original equipment. Which is good because the original equipment, from a purely practical standpoint, sucked.

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Although projectionists today still have an important job, in the old days they’d have to tend to their projectors like a nurse tending to a sick patient. The light in early projectors was a very early arc lamp. This is a form of lighting that goes back to the 1800s. In its most primitive form, it involves running two different levels of voltage through two carbon rods. Touch them together, and the current between them vaporizes the tips of the carbon rods. That vapor doesn’t vanish. It lingers between the tips of the carbon rods, and electricity streaks through, illuminating the vapor and whatever is beyond it.

Arc lamps were bright, but incredibly unsteady. People were always adding improvements to maximize safety and minimize jumpiness. First mercury vapor got added to the bulb, making the light a steady and bright enough source of light to use. Then the carbon rods, which were sometimes nothing more than packed plant fiber, were replaced rods incorporating tungsten. Through it all, the projectors needed tending, and even the best attendants found their lamps sputtering and shimmering, and the images on the screen flickering in front of faces. This is what got movies the nickname of “flickers” or “flicks.”

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Technology improved, and the flickering died away. The carbon arc lamp stayed around for a surprising amount of time. Manufacturers didn’t stop making them until the 1980s, and there are still a few theaters where you can find old projectors. Today, your steady images are likely to be produced by gas discharge lighting, which lasts longer and is more reliable. The only thing we’ve kept around is the nickname.

Second Image: Achim Grochowski