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The Films of Thomas Edison
Remind Me

The Films of Thomas Edison

The title of "inventor" of the cinema can be bestowed upon no single person, as the medium was not brought into existence by one deific creator, but rather evolved through the technological and artistic achievements of numerous individuals, playing off one another, over the course of several years. Some contributed more than others. Some names are commonly known. Others are nearly forgotten.

Even if we deny the mantle to any individual, one name seems to loom over the others whenever the primordial days of film are discussed: Thomas Alva Edison. Ironically, he was not a filmmaker. Nor did he personally invent the apparatus. If this is the case, why do historians insist upon lauding Edison for someone else's accomplishment? Because, in spite of it all, no single person contributed so greatly to the rapid evolution of the device that would represent the 20th Century's greatest art form.

To understand how this can be, one must look at Thomas Edison: the entity. By the 1880s, Edison was a household word, probably most famous for the innovation of the incandescent light bulb. He embodied the American dream and demonstrated that good ideas would be rewarded by wealth, fame and honor. He cultivated the image of the tireless inventor, relentlessly pursuing life-improving ideas in his cozy workshop. In reality, Edison was more of a trademark than a person. His cozy workshop was a vast complex that included physical, chemical, and metallurgical laboratories. Edison understood that his value as a figurehead -- American invention personified -- was more important than his abilities at a workbench. The labs were staffed with bright-minded scientists recruited to carry out research and development in their fields of expertise. Based on their work, Edison (the entity) filed a steady stream of technical patents, while a legal staff exploited and protected the commercial value of these claims.

This system of organized technical innovation that Edison developed was a feat of engineering that should not be omitted from his list of accomplishments.

Edison is generally associated with the invention of the light bulb, but the telegraph was the device upon which his empire was founded. He didn't invent the telegraph, it merely provided him with his training ground. Through his work with the device, he learned the fundamentals of technological improvement, the process of filing a patent, and the methods of exploiting its commercial potential.

Born in Milan, Ohio, on February 11, 1847, Edison became a telegraph operator at age fifteen, when the communication of information via electrical impulses (dots and dashes) over copper wire was still a rudimentary process. In his book Edison: A Life of Invention, Paul Israel charts Edison's contributions to telegraphy, born of an overworked, underpaid operator's desire for greater efficiency (which would mean higher pay and more sleep). Edison's first true invention, in 1867, allowed the dots and dashes of Morse code to be punched onto a spool of paper tape. In this way, a telegraph operator could leave his or her post (or take a nap) and transcribe the message from the paper tape at a later time -- as opposed to listening and translating live, with no physical record of the actual message. Edison's subsequent developments in "automatic telegraphy" maximized the volume of data that could be transmitted across a single line, printed the electrical impulses as letters that could be read by anyone, and eventually eliminated the need for a full-time telegraph operator.

By December, 1875, Edison had achieved enough success to purchase a home and two tracts of land in Menlo Park, New Jersey, twelve miles south of Newark. For an additional $2,500 he constructed a lab.

Israel writes that, by 1877, it was already difficult to determine who, at Edison's shop, was doing the actual inventing. "The laboratory notebooks detailing the work on telephony sometimes make it very difficult to tell whose ideas are represented. Edison, [Charles] Batchelor, and [James] Adams all wrote down ideas and experimental results. Sometimes these were designated as Edison's ideas or designs, but at other times they were designated as 'our's.'"

In 1877, the Edison staff developed the cylinder phonograph. In the winter of 1879/80, it was the light bulb. New projects were periodically introduced while the old ones were continually improved upon. The staff expanded. A new $80,000 complex was constructed in West Orange, New Jersey in 1888. Among the first experiments to be conducted in this new facility was the development of a motion picture device. This was inspired by a demonstration, in February, 1888, of Eadweard Muybridge's zoopraxiscope, which projected a disc of multiple still drawings in rapid succession, so that the subjects appeared to move. Muybridge later paid a visit to the Edison labs to discuss his device with the world-renowned Wizard.

Placed in charge of this new field of research was William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. According to Israel, "Edison assigned Dickson the photographic and optical research while he took personal responsibility for the electromechanical design. Besides Dickson's experience in these matters, of course, the experiments with photographic emulsions involved the kind of routine chemical research that Edison liked to delegate to his assistants."

Edison is reported to have said the new device would "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear." Initially, that's exactly what the device was: a phonograph that had been modified to play pictures. A strip of sequential photographs was wound around a cylinder in a spiral (like the spiral groove of a phonograph cylinder). Just as the edges of the phonograph groove were "read" by a needle and amplified by a diaphragm and horn, the tiny photos were "read" by a lens and magnified by a microscope.

After witnessing the motion picture device of Etienne-Jules Marey at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1899 (which utilized a flexible strip of photographic images gathered on a spool), Edison abandoned the cylinder in favor of a reel-to-reel strip of photographs, in which the images were fed horizontally past a magnifying lens. He wasn't entirely copying Marey, for the film-strip device parallels Edison's tape-fed "automatic telegraph" of 1867.

By 1889, Dickson's staff had grown to include William Heise, Charles Kayser, and brothers William and Fred Ott (the latter was immortalized when he performed a snuff-induced sneeze before the Edison motion picture camera: Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, 1894). The project met with success. There were new inventions and these inventions were christened with names. The camera was called the kinetograph ("living image" or "motion picture"), while the viewing device would be known as the kinetoscope. Edison began personally demonstrating the device on a limited basis, while Dickson and company stood by in the wings.

In December, 1892, a tarpaper shed was constructed for the purpose of filming with the kinetograph. Built at a cost of $637.67, with a skylight that could be opened to admit natural light, and mounted on circular tracks so it could be rotated to follow the sun, it was nicknamed the Black Maria, and -- according to the Guinness Book of World Records, at least -- it was the first motion picture studio ever built.

Edison's experimental motion pictures were first publicly exhibited on May 9, 1893, at the Brooklyn Institute. On April 14, 1894, the kinetoscope made its commercial debut when the Edison kinetoscope parlor was opened at 1155 Broadway. A parlor opened in Chicago in May, and another in San Francisco on June 1. At that point, the American movie business exploded, and it had Edison's name plastered all over it. Though he hadn't done the inventing, he had spearheaded it, financed it, cultivated the talent to accomplish it, and then orchestrated its release to the public.

Not surprisingly, Dickson left Edison in 1895 and later co-founded his own company (the American Mutoscope Co.), where he could enjoy a greater share of the glory -- and profits.

In spite of his company's achievements, Edison still hadn't invented the movies. The kinetoscope was a single-viewer "peep show" device -- the kind of penny novelty that might occupy a billiard parlor or phonograph parlor. Patrons exchanged a coin for the opportunity to lean over a wooden cabinet and watch a single film, about 30 seconds in length. It wouldn't be cinema until it was projected before an audience. That was achieved in Paris on December 28, 1895, by the Lumiére Brothers (Louis and Auguste). For this reason, some consider them the true originators of the art form. After all, the word for the medium was derived from their cinématographe (not Edison's kinetoscope). Ultimately Edison and the Lumiéres both deserved the glory, though neither could claim exclusivity.

When the commercial potential for theatrical exhibition was established, Edison quickly developed a projection device of his own. Of course, not Edison personally but one of his team. According to Charles Musser's definitive book Before the Nickelodeon, "this 'screen machine' was the invention of two young men from Washington, DC, C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat, who originally called it the 'phantascope'...In mid February 1896 [just two months after the cinŽmatographe's debut], the Armat machine was renamed the 'vitascope.'" The first commercial exhibition of Edison's vitascope was held at Koster & Bial's music hall in New York on April 23, 1896.

In the late 1890s, before genres emerged from the varied subjects being produced, Edison's films nevertheless had their own distinctive character, especially when contrasted with the Lumiére films. The French filmmakers favored painterly compositions, bright scenic exteriors and snapshots of lives of exotic beauty and domestic tranquility. Edison's films, on the other hand, were of a more urban, male nature. Claustrophobic tableaux staged in the Black Maria (with its plain black background) focused on muscle men, dancing girls, acrobats, and blood sports popular among gambling men (cockfighting, dogfighting, bullfighting). Favored locales were the barber shop, the blacksmith shop, the opium den. Favored subjects were firemen, policemen, cowboys, war...and more dancing girls.

A major reason for the different subject matter was the size of the camera. The Edison kinetograph was electrically-powered and housed in a stationary wooden cabinet. The Black Maria was essentially built to house it. The Lumiéres' cinématographe was lightweight and portable and could be taken anywhere. As miraculous as the kinetograph was, it didn't take long for viewers to tire of the static films, and the Edison Film Manufacturing Co. developed a portable camera of their own (clearly Edison's innovations were not born of simple genius but calculated responses to market trends).

To Edison, the essence of cinema was the apparatus with which the films were shot and projected -- in modern parlance, the hardware rather than the software. The films themselves were of little consequence. He believed that the bulk of his earnings would come from the machinery, not the short subjects. The company neglected this crucial component of the business and might have suffered an early demise were it not for Edwin S. Porter. The former owner of a projector-manufacturing business, he was hired in 1900 to improve camera and projector designs for Edison. That same year, the company constructed a larger studio facility. Musser quotes Porter as saying, "after being with [the Edison Company] a short time and as they were in need of a cameraman and producer, I was given charge of the first skylight studio in the country."

Porter proved to be a godsend. He became the driving creative force of Edison's filmmaking division. In an era of primitive visual storytelling, Porter cultivated a more sophisticated method by which fairly complex plots could be dramatized. His most noteworthy contributions were the multi-shot docudrama Life of an American Fireman (1902), the nightmare fantasy Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), and The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of a handful of films which can be said to have revolutionized the art form.

What were Edison's contributions to cinema during this time? Since the industry's birth, he had engaged in legal battles with rival companies and pirates who sought to capitalize on each other's newest innovations (even as he capitalized on the innovations of others). By virtue of his wealth and reputation, Edison was able to strong-arm his rivals but he didn't quash them. Once he had them on their knees, he simply invited them to fold their business into his own so that together they could monopolize the industry. In December, 1908, an Edison-led consortium of companies formed the Motion Picture Patents Company (comprised of Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Selig, Lubin, and others), which sought to govern the industry by controlling, among other things, the technology of film projection, the price of film rental, and access to film stock.

Musser writes, "Based on the MPPCo's control of essential patents, interlocking agreements were made with the moving picture manufacturers and importers, film exchanges, exhibitors, Eastman Kodak, and various projector manufacturers. These not only assured the collection of royalties in different areas but further concentrated power in the hands of the film producers and importers who were the keystone of the contractual system."

This system of industrial thuggery continued into the 1910s, when rogue independents moved West, out of the Patents Company's reach. In 1911, Eastman Kodak began selling film stock to the independents, and the iron grip of the MPPCo. began to loosen. In 1915, a federal court ruled that the Motion Picture Patents Co. violated the Sherman Anti-trust Act and ordered its dismantling. Because it vigorously appealed the decision, the dissolution of the Patents Company didn't occur until 1918.

The end of the Motion Picture Patents Company essentially marks the end of Thomas Edison's film career. Once the commercial strength of his enterprise was undermined, he quickly lost interest in it and was no longer willing to funnel resources into an investment that relied on something as unpredictable as audience taste. Film production -- the aesthetics of cinema -- were mysteries that he had never been able to penetrate...not that he personally had tried very hard.

It is believed that the last film to emerge from the Edison Film Manufacturing Co. was Alan Crosland's The Unbeliever (1918). Because he was juggling so many other areas of research, it was easy for Edison to prune the dying branch of his empire and focus his attention elsewhere.

Edison died on October 18, 1931, at his home in West Orange. In the final years of his life, he communicated with writer Terry Ramsaye, who in 1925 published what was, at the time, the definitive history of cinema's genesis: A Million and One Nights. Edison was given the lion's share of credit and, as was his nature, he graciously accepted it. In a full-page frontispiece, Edison was described as, "inventor of the motion picture film, the camera and the Kinetoscope -- the technological foundation of the art of the motion picture."

And so it remained, until more meticulous historians such as Israel and Musser split the factual hairs and successfully doled out credit to those to whom it is properly due.

by Bret Wood