Edison's Impact

By: Ned Casey
By: Ned Casey


The effects most often referred to in discussions of the creation of film and video projects are the “special” ones: digital effects, practical effects (created in the real world as opposed to a computer based world), models, animation, mattes which combine two or more images into a single composite, pyrotechnics, and green and blue screen effects which allow for the replacement of a green or blue background with static or moving images.

The method by which film and video create believable moving images is itself an effect, probably the most “special’ effect available to the creators of moving pictures. This effect relies on a phenomenon first studied by the Greek philosopher Aristotle around 300 BC. Looking up into the sun, Aristotle noticed that an impression of the fiery disc remained in his vision even after looking away. This retention of an image is now referred to as persistence of vision and it is this phenomenon that is responsible for the long history of attempts to turn a series of moving images into a medium first for simply recording real world events and activities and eventually into a much richer and diverse medium.

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Who would suspect that Aristotle's observation about the sun would, thousands of years later, compel people to drive to an empty field to watch Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea?

The American entrepreneur Thomas Alva Edison credited in the popular imagination as the inventor of moving pictures benefited from years of hard work and ingenious development by artists, scientists, and even magicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Various devices created in the mid 19th century made use of the persistence of vision by displaying sequences of images in rapid succession which caused the brain to link these images together into an uninterrupted, continuous motion. To us these early attempts would look jittery and full of stutters but early viewers were astonished. Inventors capitalized on this amazement by using words like phantasm, magic, and fantasy as part of the names given to these early moving picture machines.

In 1872 the British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, working in California, developed a method for capturing a series of still images in order to study motion. His sequence of a galloping horse answered a famously debated question of the time regarding whether a horse at any moment had all four hooves off the ground. The fact that Muybridge’s motion study proved that they do very much pleased the gentleman who commissioned the photographs, California governor Leland Stanford who went on to found Stanford University. Muybridge’s work however still relied on multiple cameras to record a series of images which could then be put together later or viewed as a series printed on a single image. A true moving picture camera had yet to be developed.


Photographer Eadweard Muybridge's investigations of stop motion imagery helped California governor Leland Stanford answer a question about galloping horses and propelled the further study of moving pictures.

The first man credited with shooting and replaying a moving picture sequence was the French inventor Louis Augustin Le Prince. In October of 1888 using a camera he called the “receiver” he filmed a scene in a friend’s garden, a short clip of people strolling back and forth known as the Roundhay Garden scene. Shortly thereafter he shot a sequence of traffic moving across a bridge in the city of Leeds, England. He applied for a patent in the United States for this camera but was denied. Several years later, Thomas Edison applied for a similar patent and was successful.


Louis Augustin Le Prince and a frame from his Roundhay Garden Scene. Not the height of dramatic art, but a major technical achievement in the history of cinema.

In 1890 Edison hired W.K.L. Dickson to develop a motion picture camera. It was Dickson’s camera that Edison used to shoot many of his early experimental moving pictures but Edison’s company had difficulty creating a reliable projector for playing these film clips. In 1895 he bought a version of Thomas Armat’s projector called the Phantascope. Edison renamed it the Vitascope and on April 23, 1896 for the first time, a paying audience filed into a New York City music hall to watch Edison’s short scene of a ballet filmed by Edison’s technicians.

An early Vitascope and a depiction of its use in a theater, just in case people didn't get the idea right away. Edison made millions by combining the ideas and inventions of others with his gift for developing and promoting products and his understanding of which technologies might find a mass market.

In many ways Edison’s approach to his projects was very much like Bill Gates’. Both men made individual discoveries but more importantly each were able to take the work of other researchers and inventors and bring them together under an umbrella that allowed for further research, development, and financing of public demonstrations and the business savvy necessary to turn an idea or nascent invention into a product that could be sold to the public. Although others laid the important groundwork for the origination of motion picture processes and technology, Edison’s fame and connections turned their work into something that could be spread across the culture. His commercialization of moving picture technology expanded exponentially with the installation of nickelodeon theaters all over the country where viewers could watch short clips of parades, ship launches, street scenes, dancers and entertainers.

But Edison's ego often got the better of his amazing business acumen. Although Edison never disputed claims that he "invented' electricity, the truth is that, as with the development of cinematic projection systems, he was the beneficiary of the work and inspiration of others. When it became clear that electricity could light and power entire cities (a realization, to be fair, arrived at on the part of the general public by spectacular demonstrations staged by Edison) there began a War of Currents. The brilliant scientist Nicola Tesla, a former employee of Edison, had developed, with the financial backing of George Westinghouse, a system that worked with an alternating current. Edison, who stood to gain nothing from the success of alternating current (which is used everywhere today, being much more efficient), tried to discredit anyone connected with this technology. He pushed his own direct current system as being much safer. In fact, he claimed that electricity produced by his method was entirely safe but that produced by an alternating current system would fry housewives and children. To prove this, he supported the development of the electric chair which he powered with AC generators. He gave many grisly, public demonstrations in which he connected wires from an AC power supply to animals; dogs at first (he paid local boys a quarter for every stray dog they dragged in for this purpose), and later horses and electrocuted them. Although George Westinghouse was a staunch opponent of capital punishment, Edison actively encouraged the use of the term "being Westinghoused"  as meaning death by electrocution. Edison claimed, incredbly, that no one could be hurt by direct current. Caveats required by all emptors.


The great man himself. Thomas Alva Edison and his modern day equivalent, Bill Gates. Edison's promotional genius took some very peculiar turns now and then. In 1901, during a battle with scientist Nicola Tesla over the best form of electricity for use in homes, Edison, who championed Direct Current (DC), wished to show that the Alternating Current (AC) being developed by Tesla was, shall we say, not very safe. To do this he helped to develop the electric chair, powered it with an AC generator, and later filmed a re-enactment of the execution by electrocution of Leon Czolgosz, the unhinged anarchist who had assassinated President McKinley. He made sure that everyone knew that the prison officials who cooked Czoglosz preferred alternating current to power their brand new electric chair. Not a good day for Tesla.

But in the field of moving pictures, Edison's efforts were more benign and fabulously sucessful because by 1903 this technology had graduated from novelty status to a burgeoning industry. Early film directors like Edwin S. Porter had begun developing a language for telling stories with this new medium. Aristotle’s recognition of the persistence of vision, channeled through the work of inventors and artists, would shortly transform the world.


Git 'em up, pardner! In 1903 the Great Train Robbery, generally recognized as the first "modern" film, was released to boffo box office. The film's director, Edwin S. Porter (middle) also directed the Czolgosz execution extravaganza. Nickelodeon theaters (right) spurred the public's interest in this new diversion.

A poster advertising some of Edison's early efforts. Gordon Sisters Boxing and Pie, Tramp and Bulldog were two of the offerings. Well, we had to start somewhere.

To see some of the motion work of Eadweard Muybridge visit: www.artsmia.org/animal-locomotion/

To watch Louis Augustin Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene: www.youtube.com/watch

For a look at some stills and clips from early Edison films: lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/edhtml/edmvalpha.html

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