History has a way of appearing deterministic in hindsight. Events seem pre-destined to turn out this way rather than that, this man to succeed rather that one; what historian Daniel Boorstin calls the Survival of the Victorious Point of View. The early days of motion picture technology offer an excellent example of how in the clashes between various forces, victory, of a sort, and ultimate control of the destiny of an idea is won not always by the most powerful but by the first to gain an understanding of the best applications of that idea.
Thomas Edison, credited in the popular imagination with the invention of motion pictures, promoted his initial idea for moving images into a commercial success in the last years of the nineteenth century. No one at the time could have predicted the enormous affects Edison’s little Kinetoscope would have on world culture.
In polls taken to identify the most important Americans, Edison routinely pops up directly behind names like Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and FDR. It’s a name that instantly conveys an image of the great inventor hovering over his latest marvel. He appears on a U.S. silver dollar, his bust sits at the entrance to the Naval Research Lab, Life Magazine named him the Man of the Millennium in 1997 far ahead of also-rans like Thomas Jefferson, Galileo, Albert Einstein, Shakespeare, and Isaac Newton (pikers). The state of Ohio is currently campaigning to have his likeness added to American greats honored in the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building. His image, mythologized into the pantheon of American heroes, supports the weight of the great changes that took place in America during his lifetime but as with many legends, there is the myth and then there is the truth.
Neither Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, William Shakespeare, nor Sir Isaac Newton surpass Edison when it comes to the most important man of the last millennium. At least according to Life Magazine. Edison's mythology pushes him ahead of the greatest individuals in western civilization over the last thousand years.
A popular song circulating around the time Edison was born was What Was Your Name in the States? Just weeks after Edison was born in 1847, Iowa entered the union as the 29th state. Much of the western part of the country was still territorial and as such, not part of the geography known as “the states”.
Oh, what was your name in the States
Was it Thompson, or Johnson, or Bates
Did you murder your wife and fly for your life
Say, what was your name in the States
It was a time of movement, innovation, and exploration and Edison took full advantage of the ability of nineteenth century Americans to remake themselves as often as necessary; although it's unlikely that he ever murdered anyone. Not even his wife.
American Progress, an 1872 painting by John Gast, epitomizes the concept of Manifest Destiny, the expansion of the United States in all areas, geographic as well as social and economic. The term became popularized around the time Edison was born in 1847. American expansion went to the edge of the continent when gold was found at Sutter's Mill in northern California, drawing miners from all across the country to change their fortune in the Gold Rush of 1849.
The mood of the country, especially after the Civil War, was one of restless anticipation for anything new, any idea, inspiration, contrivance, enterprise, or adventure that could propel the populace with all speed into the future. Edison’s special blend of ability, accomplishment, and self-promotion helped develop a mythology that endows him with almost superhuman qualities.
The Edison Mythology, built up over the years, and given a good push from Edison himself, proffers an image ready-made for the popular culture of the late 19th century, a period of dramatic invention and re-invention. A new world recast by American ingenuity seemed within reach and Edison was just the man to give life to that possibility. Like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Edison’s mythic figure was the epitome of the can-do American: ingenious, clever, brave, but never losing sight of the common touch.
Two Toms. A young Tom Edison and Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer seemed to embody the rambunctious, resourceful American lad of the 19th century. Twain was filmed for an Edison short in Redding, CT, in 1909, the year before he died. It's not clear that Edison was at the filming but Twain and Edison do meet in at least one fictional setting. In Five Fists of Science, a steampunk graphic novel published in 2006, Twain helps scientist Nikola Tesla defeat a cadre of evil industrialists led by Edison. In the real world, Twain and Tesla were good friends.
During this period Americans began to develop what Boorstin has called the “go-getter” attitude, a resolute approach to the world custom fit for Edison. Nineteenth century America became the furnace which fired the molten mix of metals and ideas that molded the modern world. The forces powering that modernity-- industrialization, technology, electricity--sucked Americans into a vortex that propelled them toward an uncertain but exhilarating future.
Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams, comments at length in his autobiography of his fascination with the electrical dynamo, seeing in it the mechanical reification of magical forces abroad in the world, imbued with moral as well as physical power. Adams, normally a reserved, conservative observer of his time who pined for the traditions of the 17th and 18th centuries, stared with hypnotic intensity into this futuristic vortex, writing that “…man had translated himself into a new universe which had no common scale of measurement with the old.” This gives you some idea of the awe in which even the most educated and sober of men held the world which Edison helped to bring about, and explains, in part, the hero worship he commanded, expanding and consolidating the Edison Mythology.
Dynamos brought electrical power to the masses, a fact that thoroughly intrigued historian, journalist, and educator Henry Adams, scion of the famous Adams family (no, not that one) from Quincy, Massachusetts. Adams, in his autobiography, provides front row observations on the immense cultural metamorphoses brought about by innovations from men like Edison.
Edison’s mythology places him alongside the Great Men and Women of History. He is credited, for instance, with inventing the light bulb. Book after book, website after website proclaim Thomas Edison the inventor of the light bulb. This is a little bit like crediting Columbus with discovering America. Plenty of people knew the Western Hemisphere held more than just sea monsters and the edge of the world. Irish Monks and Scandinavian sailors had visited North America centuries before Columbus departed Spain. In fact, Columbus wasn’t even looking for America. He was looking for India! But he gets the credit nonetheless. Interestingly, Columbus comes in second, right behind Edison, in Life Magazine's list of the most important people of the millennium.
Number one and number two on the all-Millennium team. Edison and Columbus may not always have known where they were headed, but when they got there, they were credited with changing the world.
Edison, by popular agreement is declared the inventor of the light bulb which was actually invented decades before he was born. A pretty good trick! English chemist Humphry Davy developed an incandescent light in 1810, another English scientist, Warren de la Rue, displayed the first electric light bulb in 1840, and yet a third, Joseph Swan, patented a modern light bulb a year before Edison's patent was requested.What Edison actually did was to hit upon a substance for making light bulb filaments that burned longer than a few hours.
Who invented the light bulb? Humphry Davy, Warren de la Rue, and Joseph Swan were all on the track of incandescent light long before Edison, who is credited as the "Inventor of the Light Bulb".
This was not at all insubstantial. The use of electric light bulbs across a broad cultural and social plane would have been impossible otherwise. But this is a far cry from saying that Edison “invented” the electric light. Most inventions and technical innovations tend to stand on the shoulders of previous attempts. Often, the “inventor” credited with a breakthrough has had the benefit of years of trial and error by others. Edison tried to pretend otherwise.
He is hailed as the father of the motion picture industry even though he had no interest in having more than one person at a time view the innocuous little shorts his company made, to be watched in Kinetoscopes (which he didn’t invent either). He disdained the idea, popularized in France by Lumiere and Melies, of projecting the moving image onto a screen. Allowing too many people to see it at one time meant less profit for his company. He was content to enforce a one-person one-viewing pricing structure.
The Holland Brothers, Andrew and George, opened the first kinetoscope parlor in April of 1894, in a storefront at 1155 Broadway in New York City. Customers were greeted with a bust of Thomas Edison whose mythology was already well developed by then. By the end of their first day of business, 500 customers paid twenty-five cents each to watch five short films produced by Edison's technicians. Edison (right) in an appropriately hagiographic representation. At far right, a customer views a short film in an 1894 kinetoscope built by WKL Dickson for Edison's company. No wonder the films were so short. Two hours like that would be tough on the back.
But Edison possessed qualities that set him apart from most inventors of his age. R.G. Collingwood, who wrote extensively on the philosophy of history, believed that the thought of an age or an individual is organized by a constellation of absolute presuppositions. This suggests, perhaps, a better way to get at what made Edison special. Although not particularly distinguished as a scientist (his working methods were mostly scattershot and lacked the kind of comprehensive scientific method applied by most trained researchers) he was not so obviously mired in the “absolute presuppositions” of his age. His belief in a world created, or rather re-created, by his work, supported an unflagging vision, and the success of many of his early patents provided him with economic security, the lack of which had scuttled the attempts of less fortunate investigators.
Edison was an indefatigable worker but not always the most efficient researcher. If asked to find a needle in a haystack, Edison would carefully examine each bit of straw. Nikola Tesla, his contemporary, and a gifted scientist, after determining that the needle was metal, would produce a magnet. Not all of Edison's ideas made him a fortune. His patent for a single-pour all concrete house sank like, well, a concrete block.
The reality of the lone inventor scratching out the secrets of the universe on his own was not for Edison. He hired a battery of assistants to do the grunt work for him. His famous testing of a thousand substances before successfully hitting upon carbon fiber for use as a filament might have taken decades were it not for his assembly-line. In this respect, his operation was much more like a modern research and development center. And much like modern corporations, a great deal of his commercial success originated with the realization early on of the importance of controlling one’s public identity. Investors were much less likely to hand over research funds to some solitary figure operating on the fringes of society. But Edison’s state of the art facility at Menlo Park in New Jersey, was the perfect place to display his investment opportunities. His new persona as the Wizard of Menlo Park required him to be seen at all times as the genius behind all those patents. Thus he spent a good deal of time and money buying up the rights to patents for processes and inventions created by others.
A workshop at Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison (seated center in white shirt holding a hat) poses with members of his technical staff.
Edison was acutely aware of the importance of patent control. He was awarded over 1,000 by the U.S. Patent office, the largest number of patents owned by a single individual. As the fledgling film industry began turning profits, Edison's patent infringement suits multiplied dramatically. Even if they had no merit, he could often scare rivals into submission. The threat of overwhelming legal fees haunted everyone except Edison whose deep pockets could keep lawsuits going for years. Eventually he gathered together a select group of businesses connected with the nascent film industry who agreed to align themselves with his interests: producers, distributers and even the Eastman Kodak company who declined to sell film stock to any group not part of Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company, known popularly as The Trust. Edison attempted to use their combined patent power to restrict the production, distribution, and projection of motion pictures, in effect, to create a monopoly. The Trust sought to minimize opportunities for independent producers seeking to enter the motion picture business. Edison was not alone in such practices. This was, after all, the age of the Robber Barons and Standard Oil.
The Trust. Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company engaged in what today would be called unfair business practices by closing out the early film industry to all but members of their group. They were eventually overthrown by independent film producers who found ways around their blockades. Edison operates a camera (not one of his) while George Eastman ponders how in the heck he's going to get that film back in the can. Eastman Kodak, an early member of the Trust, declined to sell film stock to non-members. Nonetheless, working with WKL Dickson, one of Edison's most gifted inventors, Kodak developed a film stock that became standard in the motion picture business.
Edison enforced a strict set of rules controlling the way members of the Trust operated, such as the running time of films, the way they were distributed, royalty payments, requirements for exhibitors to show only films made by the Trust and to accept below par (early B-movies) efforts if they wanted to show more successful films. These rules stifled innovation and expansion during the early days of motion pictures. Most members of the Trust came at the business from the position of investors and technologists and they tried to force their business model on distributors, theater owners, and the public.
But other production companies found ways around Edison's technical roadblocks and began producing their own films. These independents had a significant advantage over the Trust: they were showmen. Many were European Jews like William Fox, Adolph Zukor, and American-born Marcus Loew, all of whom operated movie theaters in New York City. They had a ground level understanding of what audiences might pay to see. All three found ways around Edison’s scheme and eventually became founding members of the Hollywood studio system, creating Twentieth Century Fox, MGM, and Paramount studios, respectively.
Marcus Loew, one of the independent producers aligned against Edison's Trust, had a much different idea of what the film viewing experience should be. In the center, Edison's idea. On the right, Loew's. Just one of the reasons the independents won control of the early film industry. The theater is Loew's Paradise in Brooklyn, NY.
As savvy a businessman as Edison often was, his commercial judgments were sometimes suspect. His early film studio had the benefit of brilliant and innovative men but his inability to share credit for his successes created a fair amount of friction. The list of early film pioneers alienated by Edison and his Trust is impressive. Among them, a former actor and would-be playwright from Kentucky named D.W. Griffith.
Griffith visited Edison’s studio in 1907 with the hopes of selling a screenplay he had written. His screenplay was rejected but he got work as an actor. He was soon after given a chance to direct the short films being churned out by Edison and his partners. Griffith had greater ambitions than 12 minute shorts. He believed audiences were ready for something different. After directing 400 shorts for Biograph (a production company founded by former Edison technical researcher WKL Dickson, the actual inventor of much of his motion picture technology; Biograph eventually became a member of The Trust), Griffith, left the confining straightjacket of Edison’s studio to make film history.
WKL Dickson (standing left), actual inventor of much of Edison's film technology, and his Biograph production staff. Kentucky native D.W. Griffith (center) left the confining strictures of Edison's Trust to make film history. Lillian Gish (right) with Richard Barthelmess in one of Griffith's masterpieces, Broken Blossoms. Gish related the story of Edison's reluctance to produce films much longer than 12 minutes. Edison, she stated, decided that audiences wouldn't be able to stand the strain on their eyes.
Eventually Edison’s hold on the film business began to loosen and he went into overdrive with lawsuits. Edison holds the record for the most patents granted to a single person, but very likely also holds a record for litigation. He sued everybody. Anyone who stood to gain from the process he believed he invented, would be served with a summons to show up in court and face a judge, or come to some financial arrangement with Edison. This ploy was successful until the independents started making more money with their longer feature films and more diverse choice of subject matter--interest in films about boxing and vaudeville novelty acts having begun to wane. More money meant that the independents too could hire their own lawyers and beat back Edison’s more outrageous legal claims.
Many innovations of early cinema were developed by the men working for Edison. WKL Dickson, who was hired by Edison to make his idea for moving pictures a reality, worked with the Eastman Kodak company to establish 35MM film as the standard format for film production. The camera system Dickson had invented made two primary demands on the film stock: a size large enough to produce a good image and strong enough to withstand rigorous handling by sprockets in both the camera and the projector. The 100MM format being sold by Kodak at the time for use in still cameras was large enough to produce excellent images but too fragile for the transport systems in cameras. Eventually Dickson, after testing various sizes, established the ideal frame at 1 inch across and ¾ of an inch high. This also established the 4X3 aspect ratio still in use today in many formats (including television). Dickson also designed and built Edison’s famous Black Maria film studio, the facility in which many of the early kinetoscope films were shot and which housed the film lab that developed and processed the Edison films.
Edison's Black Maria studio, designed and built by WKL Dickson. Dickson recalled that the structure got its name from the black paddy wagons used by police in those days. They were small, hot, and claustrophobic. According to Dickson, Edison got the idea for the original kinetoscope from a zoetrope, a child's toy that simulated simple motion by displaying successive still images.
But Dickson, in his History of the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph, written in 1895 does credit Edison with the idea for creating a device that would produce the illusion of motion. Dickson writes that Edison’s inspiration came from a child’s toy called a zoetrope which crudely suggested motion by allowing viewers to watch successive still images through slits in a spinning barrel. But Edison’s vision could likely have remained an idle concept without men like Dickson, through whose work Edison’s mythic stature continued to grow well into the new century
Next: The Edison mythology in popular culture.