The Edison Mythology and the Birth of Motion Pictures -- part two

By: Ned Casey
By: Ned Casey

Edison as a figure in popular culture.







Edison in Popular Culture


The transition of Edison from man to myth began early and continues apace in contemporary popular culture as demonstrated by his many appearances as an iconic character in fiction, film, and television. This transition from man to icon began during Edison’s lifetime. In 1925, the film Lights of Old Broadway featured several characters based on real people including Edison and Teddy Roosevelt.  The plot depicts the coming of electricity with a subplot involving those who own stock in natural gas standing in the way of progress, in the way of the Great Man himself. A similar plot device is used in Edison the Man, very little of which is based on Edison’s actual life.  He even shows up in an episode of the Simpsons as the Wizard of Evergreen Terrace.



Edison's appearance as a semi-fictional character in film began in 1919 with Lights of Old Broadway, starring Marion Davies. Davies was involved for many years with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (center), a great admirer of Edison and his ability to garner positive public praise. Hearst once said of Edison that no one else had done so much for the progress of mankind, thus adding to Edison's mythology. What would a mythic figure be without an appearance on The Simpsons? Edison as the Wizard of Evergreen Terrace. The beer cans and sandwich are no doubt courtesy of Homer Simpson.

In the early 1940s, two largely fictional films purported to represent famous moments in Edison’s life. Young Tom Edison, produced by MGM in 1940, was directed by Norman Taurog starring Mickey Rooney in the title role. Interestingly, Louis B. Mayer, one of the founding members of MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) procured passage into the world of Hollywood studios by purchasing the rights to become the sole distributer of D.W. Griffith’s landmark film Birth of a Nation in the New England area (Griffith once worked for Edison). Griffith’s box office smash, with a running time of an astounding 190 minutes (at 16 frames per second), was exactly the kind of entertainment Edison had predicted would fail with audiences.



Mickey Rooney plays the teenage inventor busily cooking up something as Young Tom Edison. Spencer Tracy in Edison the Man displays his amazing talking machine to Rita Johnson. Both films came out in 1940 as part of Hollywood's celebration of American heroes during the months prior to World War II. Edison was ready made for the myth of the lone American inventor, succeeding against all odds. Very little in either of these films was factual.


That same year MGM also released Edison the Man, directed by Clarence Brown, with Spencer Tracy as the famous inventor. Edison’s domination of the early film industry was so complete that an enormous number of early technicians, directors, and actors, worked, at some point, on an Edison production. Clarence Brown began his film career in 1915 as an assistant director and editor for William A. Brady Pictures. Brady, who backed into the motion picture business as manager of famous boxer James J. Corbett, served as the timekeeper in a film shot in Edison’s Black Maria studio.



Clarence Brown (left, in the hat), director of Edison the Man, was connected, like so many in the early days of motion pictures, with Edison. Edison's biggest hits were boxing pictures such as this encounter (right) between then world champion fighter James J. Corbett (on the left) and Peter Courtney. Viewers paid a nickel to watch each round. The smart ones watched only the last couple of rounds to save money.


The film records a boxing match between Corbett and Peter Courtney shot on September 7, 1894. This became the most lucrative film for Edison’s kinetoscope business, due largely to the fact that boxing was illegal in many states, but watching it on film was not (Edison’s kinetoscope business brought in well over a quarter million dollars between 1893 and 1895, an enormous sum when one considers that his customers were often paying no more than a nickel per viewing). Fights were perfect subjects for the short format kinetoscopes. Viewers would pay to watch by the round. Smarter viewers eventually learned to watch only the last couple of rounds to save money. At the time Jim Corbett was the heavyweight champion of the world. After retirement, he appeared in a number of forgettable pictures but he too achieved a sort of mythic stature in pop culture. He would be portrayed years later by Errol Flynn in a Warner Bros. biopic, Gentleman Jim.




James J. Corbett, who appeared in a number of mediocre films became mythologized himself, thanks to the power of film, in a Warner biopic from 1942, Gentleman Jim. Errol Flynn portrayed the fighter who supposedly introduced Marquess of Queensbury rules to professional boxing.

Edison, ever  the grand promoter, promised that his invention (moving pictures) would provide an experience of such verisimilitude that the viewer would see and hear events as if they were standing there watching them unfurl in person. It has been over a century since Edison made that proclamation and even in the wake of such 3D marvels as James Cameron’s Avatar, we are nowhere near that kind of realism. But Edison’s grandiose hyperbole guaranteed great advertising copy.


A good deal of his success stemmed from his ability to translate ideas into mechanical reality and then offer substantive and interesting applications for the mechanical devices. In 1877 he walked into the New York offices of Scientific American and displayed a small device he called the tin foil phonograph. Although primitive and short-lived, it sufficiently impressed the staff of the magazine who reviewed Edison’s invention in the December 22, 1877 issue. And if anyone wondered what in the world to do with such a device, Edison happily supplied a long list of possible uses. Interestingly, the primary use for which the phonograph became famous, reproduction of music, was far down that list. True to form, Edison, when he could improve the device no further, moved on to other projects.



Edison's original tin foil phonograph used to wow the boys in the Scientific American offices in New York in 1877. Alexander Graham Bell, another somewhat famous 19th century inventor, demonstrates his new fangled telephone thing in 1876. Bell would pick up where Edison had left off with the phonograph, advancing its capabilities and sound quality, but Edison could not accept that anyone else might be credited with improvements to his invention.


Over the next ten years Alexander Bell and others discovered ways to dramatically improve Edison’s phonograph. They approached Edison with a proposal to work together to continue to refine and enhance the technology. An angry Edison flatly refused, but he did purloin their ideas and soon after released a “new and improved” phonograph produced by his own manufacturing company.  Luckily for Bell, his patents were bought by a wealthy investor who, because he owned the intellectual property rights, could force Edison to do business with him. Shortly thereafter, Edison, to fend off any possible incursion from other investors, sent his men abroad to record the voice of Queen Victoria, the piano playing of Johannes Brahms, and Handel recorded at the Crystal Palace in London. His genius for promotion set his business ventures apart from others. In a previous blog we saw how Edison supported the development of the electric chair in order to connect a rival, George Westinghouse, with this lethal device in an attempt to destroy the public's confidence in his business. Westinghouse and Edison were in a war of currents. Westinghouse favored adoption of alternating current (AC) and Edison, direct current (DC). Edison made sure the public knew that the electric chair used AC power and hoped they would then assume AC could not be used safely in the home.


Edison makes an appearance in the DC comics Jonah Hex series in a storyline involving the war of the currents. The reference to Tesla's work for Edison is true. The line about Tesla being crazy is not. Edison hired Nikola Tesla to improve his poor design for a power generator and offered to pay Tesla $50,000. When Tesla completed the job, Edison told him the offer was a joke, but he was happy to implement Tesla's work.


This became a standard way of doing business for Edison: come up with the basics for an excellent idea, let someone else develop or improve it, and adapt their ideas in order to enrich himself. The development of moving pictures was no different. This isn’t to say that Edison had no abilities of his own. He was an amazingly gifted mechanical engineer and he developed a number of ground-breaking concepts and prototypes. He simply had no compunction about pilfering the ideas and work of others and offering them neither money nor credit. This combination of personal abilities, intellectual piracy, and aggressive litigation made him a wealthy man, and allowed him to expand his mythology as the sole or primary architect of many of the modern world’s most impressive inventions.


But even Edison's abilities at self-promotion paled in comparison to those of the man whose public relations genius solidified the image of Edison as the single greatest American inventor. In 1929, a public relations extravaganza unlike any the world had ever seen commenced in Michigan. Industrialist and auto mogul Henry Ford kicked off a ceremony called Light's Golden Jubilee celebrating 50 years of electric light, as brought to the world by none other than Thomas Alva Edison. The president, Herbert Hoover, was there along with Marie Curie, Harvey Firestone, Orville Wright, John D. Rockefeller, William Scripps, Will Rogers, America's corporate royalty and an assortment of entertainers and scientists thrown in for good measure 


Henry Ford, President Herbert Hoover, and Thomas Edison alight a train at a Michigan depot for the start of Light's Golden Jubilee, a publicity extravaganza devised by Edward Bernays, father of public relations, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the great moment when Edison brought light down from the heavens. The event also praised the power of corporate America. The next week Wall Street crashed and the Great Depression began, October 29, 1929.

This shindig was the brainstorm of one Edward Bernays, father of modern public relations. Bernays was hired by General Electric, a company founded by Edison, to create an event to commemorate the Great Man's invention. Bernays, who had already amassed a string of public relations firsts, devised a party of mythic proportions. Edison, President Hoover, and Henry Ford all arrived in Dearborn, Michigan, in a vintage 1860s train similar to the one on which Edison sold newspapers as a child. An institute was dedicated in his name, a recreation of the miraculous illumination of the "first" light bulb was captured for posterity, gaudy light displays arranged across America and in a number of foreign capitals were all dimmed at the same time and slowly brought back to full strength to honor the modern Prometheus, Thomas Edison, bringer of light.



The Father of Public Relations, Edward Bernays, organizer of the event that raised Edison to Olympian heights.

I had a chance to visit Bernays in the late 1980s. At the time he was in his nineties but he recalled the event with clarity and relish. His goal, he said, was to demonstrate the power of public relations for positive effects. Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, approached his work with a deep understanding of the need for emotional attachment to individuals and ideas focused by events such as the Edison Jubilee. In essence, he was promoting the idea of American Virtue Triumphant. In gathering together the cream of American Industry, Bernays was promoting not only Edison, but the value and virtue of American businesses and practices. The date was October 21, 1929. Unfortunately for Bernays, and the rest of the world, eight days later, on Black Tuesday, the Great Depression began.

So what, then, can we say about Edison in a positive light? A cartoon in a recent New Yorker magazine shows a group of cavemen standing around a prone figure. They all have various types of war clubs but the winner in this contest holds his club aloft. The caption indicates that, although his club improves the technology, it’s not a game changer.  

 Edison, although he is often given credit for inventions he did not actually create, was, perhaps more importantly, the wellspring from which emanated a good many of those one thousand patents. It’s possible that WKL Dickson would have invented something like the Kinetoscope on his own, but there was no guarantee of that. Working with Edison, he was handed the task of figuring out a puzzle. A puzzle offered up by Edison for whom an idea was only good if it could be fashioned into something useful in the world. The answers to many of the puzzles he posed were, in fact, game changers. Practical uses of electricity, the phonograph, moving pictures, power generators--all changed the world.  Many inventors develop improvements or devise different ways of doing things that can already be accomplished, perhaps with a less efficient device or process. Edison’s inventions, like the Wright Brothers’ plane, empowered the world to do something never done before. Dreamed of, perhaps, but never actually accomplished until Edison set his researchers onto the task of solving those puzzles.


Edison in a photograph taken by his colleague WKL Dickson. Cultural myths have achieved a special place once self-reflexive cartoons begin appearing. Humor poses no danger to the status of the mythic figure. By the time a mythic figure has reached the heights, the joke serves mostly to support the legend.

This is the true source of the power of the Edison mythology. His goals were the inchoate dreams of his time into which he and his colleagues breathed life. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his study of the Uses of Great Men, intimates that "what is best written or done by genius in the world, was no man's work, but came by wide social labor, when thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse." To Emerson, a man like Edison represented the collective power of the group focused by a single great man. Popular usage of the term "myth" often infers something that is untrue. In the previous blog I stated that there is myth and there is truth, but that is somewhat of a simplification. Myth, and the stories and legends that support and flesh out a mythic image, transmits its own truths, conveys a more subtle apprehension of the universe. Rather than promising factual truth, myth provides symbolic representations of the truth of an idea. If we adopt this understanding of the elements that comprise this particular mythology and combine it with Emerson's suggestion about the uses of great men, that is, the way the great individual can serve as a focal point for society, we can begin more clearly to fathom the origin of Edison’s apotheosis.


Edison the man was a truly remarkable individual blessed with tremendous drive and ambition and a variety of skills that allowed him to blend business and technology into a homogeneous whole that brought many marvels to the world. He was also a cantankerous, egotistical, and difficult adversary who cared not a jot for ethical dealings and would sue his grandmother. But the mythic Edison stands above all around him. He incorporates the best of human ingenuity and genius; he is both above us and of us. He represents the best that we can be.



Edison's mythic stature carries him across the entire spectrum of pop culture: worshipful biographies, animated programs, even historical games with which the players can stand behind the great man as he invents the incandescent light. The 1934 biography, Thomas A. Edison, Modern Olympian, by Mary Childs Nerney, makes no mention of any of the many researchers and scientists who developed light bulbs before Edison. The mythology remains intact throughout. The cover art, by the way, is by American artist Thomas Hart Benton.


Undoubtedly, the film industry did not follow Edison’s plan. His vision was nearly the opposite of what it became. In that respect, independent filmmakers like Griffith, and studio heads like Louis B. Mayer and Marcus Loew exerted much greater influence in the gestation of Hollywood. But it is just as true that film, as a game-changing cultural enterprise, owes a great debt to Edison and his collaborators.


As for the perceived disparity between myth and truth, we are told, by no less a connoisseur of American myth than John Ford, in the film Who Shot Liberty Valance, that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.



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