THOMAS EDISON BIOGRAPHY & FILMOGRAPHY:
Thomas Alva Edison was an American inventor who conceived the very first motion picture camera. He was born February 11, 1847 to middle class parents in the bustling town of Milan, Ohio. In 1854, his family relocated to Port Huron, Michigan. At age seven, Edison’s teacher reached her wits end with his constant inquiry and hyperactive persistency to know everything, even calling him “addled”. His mother decided to take over his studies, and he later recalled: “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.” She even convinced him that her son’s atypical behaviors and slightly odd physical appearance were just manifestations of his unworldly intelligence. In his youth, Edison also spent time selling snacks, fruit, and newspapers on the railroad, earning the precious entrepreneurial values he would later use in life to found fourteen companies, including his camera distribution and film production company, Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
He started his descent into the motion picture industry in 1877, when he successfully completed his first model of the phonograph. About ten years later, in 1888, he began work on a new invention, saying: “I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion…” His interest for such a contraption stemmed from before 1888 however, when Eadweard Muybridge came to his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey to demonstrate his new zoopraxiscope, which projected images from a round glass disk in rapid succession as to make the pictures appear to be in motion. Muybridge wanted to form a partnership to get his idea going, but Edison decided to instead try to create a more practical and efficient way to record motion.
He put William Kennedy Laurie Dickinson in charge of this new field of research, while he himself took personal responsibility for its electromechanical design. The device was composed of a strip of sequenced photographs that encircled a cylinder in a spiral. Just like how the grooves of a phonograph were read by a needle and augmented by a diaphragm and horn, the small pictures were read by a lens and enlarged by a microscope. He called this invention a kinetograph. Later, the cylinder would be replaced by a strip of photographs called a reel, where the images were fed horizontally across a magnifying glass.
Edison first demonstrated a motion picture with his device in either 1889 or 1890. It was an experimental film called “Monkeyshines” that was shot by Edison lab technicians William K.L. Dickinson and William Heise. In 1892, he built the first motion picture studio ever, nicknamed the Black Maria. The New Jersey studio was basically a shed that had a roof that could be opened to let in sunlight, and was mounted on circular tracks to enable it to be positioned to follow the natural light. On May 9, 1893, after being supplied with motion picture film stock by Eastman Kodak, Edison’s first publicly showed his tentative pictures at the Brooklyn Institute. Almost a year later, on April 14, 1894, the kinetoscope (the name for the picture viewer, as opposed to the camera itself, which was called a kinetograph), was commercially presented at an Edison kinetoscope parlor inside of a penny arcade, which was called a nickelodeon (the name came from the fact that it only cost a nickel to view the films). The very first Edison Studios picture, “Fred Ott’s Sneeze”, became America’s first ever copyrighted motion picture. Shortly after, more nickelodeon popped up around the world, and Edison quickly became a major name in the American movie business.
In 1985 Dickson unsurprisingly left Edison to form his own film company – which eventually became Biograph – and to perfect his own camera vision. Still, Edison had only a “peep-show” viewing device, and had yet to invent cinema. On December 28, 1895, the Lumiére Brothers projected a film in front of an audience, actually originating the first true cinema. However, the inventor rapidly followed suit, and had his team help him devise a projection device of his own. He teamed up with C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat, the men who created the Vitascope system, and agreed to supply the films and manufacture the projector. America’s first movie theater pictures were shown to Audiences on April 23, 1896, at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. Later in the year he came up with his own projector, the Projectoscope, and no longer marketed the Vitascope.
With his studio, Edison really played no part in creating the films beyond owning the company. He did, however, produce some features. Some of his early films include “Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance” (1986), “Blackton Sketches, No. 2” (1896), and “Blackton Sketches, No. 3” (1896). Edison also appeared in the films “Blackton Sketches, No. 1” (1896) and “Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory” (1897). He continued on as producer for a number more, like “Electrocuting an Elephant” (1903) and “Parsifal” (1904), but also served as the director for two features, “Bicycle Trick Riding, No. 2” (1899) and “The Trick Cyclist” (1901).
In July of 1907, the Edison Company moved away from its Black Maria studio, to an enormous, all-glass place in the Bronx, New York. By 1908 however, the company was declining. It could no longer keep up with competitors who were on the cutting edge of filmmaking technology, partially because Edison was not primarily focused on his films, but the other innovations that he was devising. Still, he continued to introduce new products, like the kinetoscope in 1913, which blended his phonograph and motion picture camera devices. With it, he produced feature such as “The Irish Policeman” (1913), “Nursery Favorites” (1913), “Julius Caesar” (1913), and his final production effort, “The Patchwork Girl of Oz” (1914). Although the invention was an improvement on earlier models, it failed to attract audiences like he had hoped, thus leading to the end of the manufacturing of Edison equipment in 1915. By that time, he was forced to start using outside distributors. Unfortunately, his efforts to save the studio were unsuccessful. On March 30, 1918, Edison sold the studio to the Parker and Lincoln Film Company, ending his involvement in film production. In 1922 he ended his involvement in the motion pictures entirely, with a biographical documentary short on his person titled “A Day with Thomas A. Edison”.
Edison died on October 18, 1931 at his home in West Orange at the old age of eight four. In 1980, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer paid tribute to the great inventor and filmmaker with a pair of biopics: the Mickey Rooney “Young Tom Edison” and Spencer Tracy “Edison, the Man”. Not too long after, he was awarded with two separate stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his paramount and pivotal contributions to the motion picture industry. He was also inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his achievements. A piece of advice from the man that has achieved more success than almost any other figure in history: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
1922 A Day with Thomas A. Edison
1914 The Patchwork Girl of Oz
1913 Julius Caesar
1913 A Minstrel Show
1913 Her Redemption
1913 Nursery Favorites
1913 The Irish Policeman
1911 Lucia di Lammermoor
1903 Electrocuting an Elephant
1901 The Trick Cyclist
1899 Bicycle Trick Riding, No. 2
1898 The Passion Play of Oberammergau
1897 Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory
1896 Blackton Sketches, No. 1
1896 Blackton Sketches, No. 2
1896 Blackton Sketches, No. 3
1896 Fatima's Coochee-Coochee Dance
1895 The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
1894 The Boxing Cats
1894 Edison Kinetoscope Films