Thomas Alva Edison
Family & Companions
Dubbed the 'Wizard of Menlo Park' during his own lifetime, and considered by some the "ancestral deity" of General Electric, Edison was a major contributor to the age of electronics. Renowned for his work on the incandescent light bulb and phonograph, his ingenuity also touched devices such as the stock ticker, mimeograph machine and telephone transmitter. Edison's New Jersey labs in Newark, Menlo Park and West Orange were think tanks extraordinaire, where creative minds worked together on key developments in early motion picture technology.
Edison had already made a number of significant inventions, primarily in the field of telegraphic systems, and established himself in West Orange, the third and largest of his New Jersey laboratories, when he wrote on October 8, 1888, "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear." This instrument was developed by Edison's assistant, amateur photographer W.K.L. Dickson. Dickson followed the experiments of European photographers Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge, who had been working with the notion of "persistence of vision"--whereby a quickly moving series of pictures gives the illusion of movement. Dickson improved on the European "zoetrope" or "magic lantern," which was constructed of separate glass plates mounted on a turning cylinder, by using strips of John Corbutt's (and later John Eastman's) newly invented flexible celluloid film. Rather than Marey's "photographic rifle," or Muybridge's closely spaced cameras going off in rapid succession, Dickson devised an electrically controlled camera called the "Kinetograph." November 1890 saw the production of Dickson's debut film, "Monkeyshines," featuring the antics of Fred Ott, another Edison assistant.
At first, Edison rejected the notion of projected film. Instead, he had Dickson perfect the "Kinetoscope," a small cabinet with a peephole, suitable for solitary viewing. The first nickelodeon "parlor," a storefront of ten Kinetoscopes with each viewing costing a nickel, opened April 14, 1894, at 1155 Broadway, in New York. It was soon followed by others in major cities in the US and Europe.
Early movies were 60 to 90 second action shorts with titles such as "Barber Shop," "Barroom," "Wrestling," "Highland Dance," "Trapeze" and so on. These were produced in the West Orange "Black Maria" studio, a black tar-papered building on a pivot so that it could be turned to follow the path of the sun through its one skylight giving natural light. "Documentaries" of activities on Valley Road outside the lab were also filmed. Because he had failed to patent the Kinetoscope properly, however, Edison's developments were much copied. Although the 1894 prize fight between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing, fought in the "Black Maria," proved a financial coup, he did not in general make much profit from his motion picture devices.
This situation changed in 1895, when Edison joined forces with Thomas Armat, who was working on a "Vitascope" projector. Projected films, with the potential to reach large audiences, premiered on April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial's Music Hall, at 34th and Broadway, in New York, sharing the bill with vaudeville acts.
Classics such as Edwin S. Porter's "The Life of an American Fireman" and "The Great Train Robbery" (both 1903) were filmed at the "Black Maria" before the construction, in 1905, of a large glass studio in the Bronx, New York. In 1909 Edison, along with several other fledgling movie producers, formed the Motion Picture Patents Company to try to impede independent film production. In 1917, however, this monopoly was broken and Edison retired from the film business.
MGM immortalized "the Wizard" in two 1940 movies, "Young Tom Edison" and "Edison the Man."
Misc. Crew (Short)
Family moved to Port Huron, Michigan
Built a science laboratory in his family's home
First experimented with telegraphic devices
Worked as newspaper and candy vendor
Hired as telegraph operator
Injured ear in train accident; left hearing-impaired (date approximate)
Moved to Canada and worked as telegraph assistant
Invented electric vote recorder
Patented stock ticker
Set up manufacturing plant, Newark, New Jersey
Founded research laboratory, Menlo Park, New Jersey
Patented the phonograph
Created the electric light bulb
"Edison Kinetophonograph/Kinetophone" demonstrated
"Kinetograph" camera and viewer demonstrated
Manufactured films at "Black Maria" studio
"Edison Vitascope" projected 12 short films at Koster & Bial Music Hall, New York on April 23rd
Co-founded Motion Picture Patents Company
Retired from film
Consolidated various companies into Thomas A Edison, Inc.