xxxxxIt was Thomas Edison, the American inventor of the phonograph in 1877 (Vb) and the electric light bulb two years later, who gave the first demonstration of moving pictures in 1891. Expertly assisted by his chief engineer William Dickson, he produced the Kinetoscope, a peephole apparatus which enabled one person at a time to view a rapid succession of individual views. By 1894 he had produced a large number of these machines and installed them in cities across the United States and Europe. For a modest payment they showed short sequences of different events, such as boxing, wrestling, trapeze artists and dancing displays, and these proved extremely popular. He then tried to add sound by incorporating a phonograph, but he failed in the attempt. In the meantime others - notably the French Lumière brothers in 1895 - had developed the means to project these moving images onto a screen, thereby giving birth to the film industry. Edison then developed his own film projector and, at the same time, produced a more advanced storage battery, and made a marked improvement to Roentgen’s X-ray screen. By the new century he had become a famous man, a legend in his own time. His series of inventions improved the quality of life for millions of people and did much to shape modern society.

THOMAS ALVA EDISON  1847 - 1931  (Va, Vb, Vc, E7, G5)


Edison: detail, by the Bachrach Photographic Studios, founded in Baltimore in 1868. Image enhanced by the Belgian photographic restorer Michel Vuijlsteke (b.1970). Kinetoscope: publicity photograph c1895, artist unknown. Glenmont: date and artist unknown. Le Prince: single frame of film taken in the City of Leeds, England, 1888 – the 60mm film spools used by Le Prince, and the 20- frame sequence are held at the National Science Museum, London.

xxxxxThe first public demonstration of motion pictures was given in 1891 by the company owned by Thomas Alva Edison - the American inventor who, as we have seen, produced the phonograph in 1877 (Vb), and the electric light bulb two years later. The birth of the cinema and a worldwide film industry were just four years distant.


xxxxxItxwas in 1888, following his move to West Orange, New Jersey, and the building of a large research laboratory there, that Edison became interested in the idea of making moving pictures. In October of that year he took out a patent describing a device that would record and reproduce images in motion and “do for the eye what a phonograph does for the ear”. Edison’s basic work on the electro-mechanical design for this apparatus started the project off, but it was his chief engineer, a young Scotsman named William Dickson (1860-1935), who was tasked with and achieved the required photographic and optical development. Together with a number of assistants, he invented both the Kinetograph - a camera capable of taking a series of instantaneous photographs - and then the Kinetoscope, a peep show apparatus which enabled one person at a time to view a rapid succession of individual views.

xxxxxThe first showing of this peep-hole viewer, housed in a wooden cabinet, was given in May 1891 for some 150 members of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, especially invited to the laboratory. The film was just three seconds long and simply showed Dickson waving and taking off his hat, but it made cinema history. The machine was then made coin-operated, and was ready for production by the autumn of 1892. In May 1893 the Kinetoscope was given its first public demonstration at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Among the first series of short films was a 5-second sequence of a sneeze (made by Fred Ott, one of Dickson’s assistants), and a movie showing three blacksmiths at work, about 34 seconds long. These and later films were made by Dickson and his team in a specially constructed studio at West Orange which, shrouded as it was in paper covered in black tar, came to be called the “Black Maria” (the name given to a police wagon). The studio was officially known as The Kinetographic Theatre, but Edison dubbed it “the Dog House”.

xxxxxThese movies aroused such interest that in April 1894 Edison opened the first Kinetoscope Parlour in Broadway, New York, where for 25 cents different films could be viewed on a number of machines. It proved immensely popular. Soon parlours were opened in the major cities, and peep-show machines were installed in amusement arcades and hotel lobbies across the United States. The programmes included cock fights, wrestling, boxing matches, trapeze artists, music hall performers, dancing displays and everyday events. Not surprisingly, by the end of the year hundreds of Kinetoscopes had been sent across the Atlantic. There they quickly became a popular attraction in London, Paris and other cities across Europe.

xxxxxFollowing the widespread success of the Kinetoscope, Edison turned his attention to a movie system with sound attached. By the Spring of 1895 he and Dickson had produced the Kinetophone - a Kinetoscope with a phonograph fitted inside the cabinet - but this often failed to synchronize sight with sound. At this stage Edison was advised by members of his staff to turn his attention to film projection, but he argued that the peep show machines were selling well and that the development of a screen would “kill the goose that lays the golden egg”. As a result, by the time he came round to investigate a projection system one was already in operation. As we shall see, in 1895 two French brothers, Louis and Auguste Lumière, having seen Edison’s Kinetoscope working in Paris, developed the means of projecting moving pictures onto a screen and opened the world’s first cinema.

xxxxxEventually, having seen his sales of the Kinetoscope plummet, Edison decided to invest in a projection system. He acquired a projector developed by two young American inventors named Charles Frances Jenkins (1867-1934) and Thomas Armat (1866-1948), and introduced it as his latest machine, the Vitascope (illustrated). (Later used to take movies of the Second Anglo-Boer War). In November 1896, however, his laboratory came up with the Projectoscope, an improved projector, and this gave him a place - eventually quite extensive - in the cinema business. In 1908 he started the Motion Picture Patents Company, a conglomerate of nine film studios, and in 1912 he marketed an ingenious but fairly expensive Home Projecting Kinetoscope. In the meantime, he returned to the question of sound. By 1913 he had produced a prototype, but once again the task of synchronizing sight and sound by using a complicated arrangement of pulleys proved too difficult. Reluctant to replace the cylinder with the disc, he abandoned the scheme within a year. It was not, in fact, until 1926 that an improved sound-on-disc system gave birth to the “talkies”.


xxxxxOther projects at this time were more successful. In 1896 he designed a Fluoroscope, an X-ray machine which, by the use of calcium tungstate, greatly improved the quality of the screen originally invented by Wilhelm Roentgen. There followed in 1901 his alkaline storage battery, one of his most lucrative inventions. Produced after extensive research, by 1909 he was the principal supplier of batteries. These met a wide variety of needs, including train lighting and signalling, lighting in submarines, and the powering of mining lamps and the new automobiles. And it was at this time that, as a friend of the automobile magnate Henry Ford (1863-1947) - who lived near to his winter retreat in Florida - he contributed to the development of the first motor cars.

xxxxxHe had one long-term failure. Throughout the 1880s and much of the1890s his laboratory worked on a means of extracting iron from discarded low-grade ores by means of a magnetic ore-separator. In the course of this research he acquired no less than 145 old mines, but he never overcome the engineering problems involved, and this proved a costly undertaking. But this failure cannot in anyway detract from the genius of Thomas Alva Edison. By his own ingenuity, persistence and determination - or by his guidance of others in pursuance of his aims - he produced a series of inventions which improved the quality of life for millions of people and did much to shape modern society - be it the phonograph, the electric light bulb, the first moving pictures or, perhaps above all, a generating system designed for the distribution of electricity.

xxxxxAnd he also enhanced the inventions of others, improving, for example, the efficiency of the storage battery and the quality of both Bell’s telephone and Roentgen’s X-ray screen. His Congressional Gold Medal, awarded in 1928 (just one of the many honours bestowed upon him), referred to his “development and application of inventions that have revolutionized civilization”. Few men can lay claim to such a distinction.

xxxxxBy the beginning of the 20th century Edison was a very wealthy and a very famous man. Regarded as an eccentric genius (an image he cultivated), he was a folk hero and a legend in his own time. As a man who rose from rags to riches he was the epitome of the “American Dream”, but in his private life he was very much a loner, perhaps caused in part by the fact that he had been partially deaf for most of his life. In the late 1920s his health deteriorated and he died of complications caused by diabetes in October 1931. He was buried behind his mansion, Glenmont, in West Orange, New Jersey (illustrated). On the night of his funeral many people turned off their lights for one minute to honour the Wizard of Menlo, the man who had lit up the world. The house where he was born in Milan, Ohio, is now the Edison Birthplace Museum, and there is the Thomas Ava Edison Memorial and Museum in the town of Edison, New Jersey.

xxxxxIncidentally, in 1876 Edison was visited at Menlo Park by the Irish scientist Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin). Apart from Henry Ford, Edison numbered among his acquaintances the French physicist Marie Curie, President Herbert Hoover, and Charles Lindbergh, the American aviator who made the first transatlantic flight in 1927. ……

xxxxx……xxWhen told on one occasion that, in the course of his research, thousands of his experiments had failed, Edison replied that they were not failures, they had served to tell him what things wouldn’t work! ……

xxxxx……xxEdison married Mary Stilwell, a sixteen-year-old who worked in one of his shops, in December 1871 and, following her death in 1884, he married Mina Miller, the daughter of an inventor, two years later. He had three children from both marriages. It is said that he taught Mina the Morse code and proposed to her by tapping a message out on her hand! ……

xxxxx……xxIn the summer of 1894 a programme shown on a Kinetoscope, his peep-show invention, in Asbury Park, New Jersey, led to the first film censorship in movie history. A Spanish dance sequence was banned because it gave a glimpse of the dancer’s “ankles and lace”! ……

xxxxx……xxEdison was deeply upset in the late 1890s when, following his experiments to improve the screen of Roentgen’s X-ray machine, one of his researchers named Clarence Dally became an early victim to radiation. In an attempt to save him, both his arms were eventually amputated, but he died in 1904. Edison vowed never to work with X-rays again.

xxxxxBut the birth of motion pictures cannot be put down to one man alone. Whilst Edison was one of the foremost pioneers in this field - mainly through the ability of his team of researchers at his laboratory at West Orange - there were many inventors attempting to develop moving images at this time, and a number took advantage of the discoveries of others. As we have seen in 1888, for example, the American inventor George Eastman made a considerable contribution to photography and, indirectly, the development of motion pictures. His Kodak celluloid roll film, which proved remarkably strong and pliable, was used by Dickson from 1889 onwards. Without it, the Kinetoscope would not have achieved such a measure of success.

xxxxxAndxthere were many other advances, some of which failed simply because of the lack of financial support. As early as 1877 the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), an Englishmen who spent most of his life in the United States, began experimenting with a series of photographs depicting a running horse, taken by a line of twelve cameras. Later he perfected his Zoopraxiscope. This created the illusion of movement by placing a series of images of animals or people on a glass disc and turning the disc passed the lens of a magic lantern. This idea inspired a French physiologist named Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904). In 1882 he devised a “photographic gun” which, when “fired”, rotated a glass plate and took twelve photographs a second of a bird in flight.

xxxxxThesexflickering attempts were poor at best, but in 1888 a French photographer named Louis Le Prince (1842-1890), using a single lens camera and paper film, took a sequence of moving pictures showing traffic going over a bridge in the English city of Leeds (illustrated). He is regarded by many as the first filmmaker but, unfortunately, his research was cut short. He planned to give a public demonstration on a visit to the United States, but he disappeared in mysterious circumstances two years later. Likewise the English inventor William Friese-Green (1855-1921), must be seen as a leading pioneer in photography rather than “the father of motion pictures”. It is said that, using his own “chronophotographic” camera, capable of taking short picture sequences on a roll of perforated film, he took the first movie images, a scene showing people and horse-drawn vehicles at Hyde Park Corner, London, in 1889. However, it appears that the movement was very jerky - ten pictures a second proving inadequate - and, again, he gave no successful presentation of his achievement. The cost of his research eventually led to bankruptcy in 1891.

xxxxxThexmajor break through, as we have seen, came with the advent of celluloid film, produced and marketed by Eastman in 1889. This replaced glass and metal plates and was a major step forward in the advent of motion pictures. Even in this respect, however, there were others who deserve recognition. As early as the mid-1880s the English photographer John Carbutt (1832-1905), working in Philadelphia, began using transparent celluloid strips coated with a photosensitive gelatine emulsion. This, in fact, proved too stiff for the needs of motion photography, but in May 1887, as we have seen, an American clergyman named Hannibal Goodwin filed a patent for a more flexible material, and some years later Eastman was fined for the infringement of the copyright. Andxit was a French science teacher, Émile Reynaud (1844-1918) who, on replacing glass plates with paper film for his animated film show called Théatre Optique, made holes in the centre of the film strip to assist its passage. This perforation - later involving a series of slots along both edges of the strip - was to be an essential requirement when motion pictures came to be projected onto a screen.

xxxxxThe birth of the cinema eventually came in the mid-1890s. Today it is generally accepted that it was the French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière, working in Paris, who opened the first cinema in December 1895. But, as we shall see, that assumption did not go unchallenged.

xxxxxIncidentally, in Leeds, Le Prince’s achievement has not been forgotten. A bronze memorial tablet, unveiled in 1930, is on display at his one-time workshop in Woodhouse Lane.



Birth of the Motion

Picture Industry