Contributions of Thomas Edison and Others to Motion Pictures

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: TURNING POINTS IN MODERN HISTORY

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

In the United States, Thomas Alva Edison enthralled an audience with astounding images of dancers, a comic boxing match, and even a seaside scene using his Vitascope in the year 1896. Around the same time, the Lumière Brothers also created films of one minute duration in France. Read on to find how the perspectives of the inventors differed, and what were their contributions to the world of cinema?

A vintage engraved illustration of Thomas Edison in front of his phonograph.
The first screening of a film with the Edison’s Vitascope was held at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, New York City in the April of 1896. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

On 23rd of April, 1896, the audience at the Vaudeville theater in Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York city witnessed scenes of great waves of water rise up to crash onto them, but actually no water following. Thomas Edison had exhibited the first motion picture, and they had never experienced something like that ever before. Around the same time, the Lumière Brothers, Louis and Auguste, merged the process of filming and projecting to create short films, which they exhibited to the small audiences in the cafes of Paris.

However, the makers, Thomas Edison and the Lumière Brothers, had very different perspectives towards their inventions. The Lumière Brothers did not recognize the potential of motion pictures, and one of them even called it ‘an invention without a future’. Edison, on the other hand, considered motion pictures as a medium with a future and recognized its potential to appeal to a larger audience. 

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Early Life of Thomas Edison 

Born in 1847 in Ohio, Thomas Edison was raised in Port Huron, Michigan. Though he spent a few years in formal schooling, Edison’s vast knowledge was through independent study. He was more interested in setting up his own labs and performing chemical experiments than attending formal school. His other pastime was reading, and he even called Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason a decisive moment of enlightenment in his own life. Struggling with deafness since childhood, Edison overpowered this limitation in remarkable ways.

Thomas Edison, the Genius Inventor

Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor of his times who influenced modern life with his many contributions. Though Edison learnt telegraphy in his early days, he moved on to continue with his experimenting. Edison, known for his several inventions, including the electric vote recorder, the mimeograph machine, the microphone, and the phonograph to record the human voice, was also continuously innovating to improvise on inventions of others.

In 1876, Thomas Edison set up his Menlo Park research facility at New Jersey, twenty five miles southwest of New York City. Soon, the lab that never slept, came to be known as an ‘invention factory’. Edison too was nicknamed as the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ or the ‘New Jersey Columbus’. Three years later, it was in this lab that Edison perfected the incandescent light bulb, the one invention that eliminated centuries of nighttime darkness.

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Thomas Edison himself said, “I start where the last man left off”, and that led him to improvise on the stock ticker, typewriter, telephone, electrical networks, dynamos, storage batteries, and the telegraph technology. In fact, he was so smitten with the telegraph that he nicknamed his children ‘Dot’ and ‘Dash’, after the Morse code. By the time Edison died, he had more than a thousand patents to his credit, and unlike many inventors of the past, he actually made inventing his calling. Yet, Edison remained an elusive character, a man who projected the inventor as a cultural ideal.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Thomas Edison and Motion Pictures

Thomas Armat and Charles Francis Jenkins had created the prototype of a film projection device, which could cast an image on a screen for a considerable audience. Thomas Edison improved this projector and renamed it the Vitascope. In 1896, the vitascope made its first historic presentation at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City.

Photograph of Thomas Edison’s tar
 paper lined studio ‘Black Maria’.
Thomas Edison’s tar
paper lined studio ‘Black Maria’,
the world’s first film studio.
(Image: Unknown author / Public domain)

Edison’s custom-built studio was just a black shack covered in tar paper to keep out the light. Mounted on a circular track, the studio could be moved to follow the sunlight. Soon, Edison’s studio was churning out a wide range of motion pictures that appealed to a broad audience. The studio produced films on kittens in a boxing match and the first commercial for Dewar’s Scotch whiskey, among many other films. Though Edison faced cut- throat competition from his contemporaries, he deftly dealt with most of them as he was a capable entrepreneur.

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George Méliès: Father of Special Effects

In 1896, George Méliès inadvertently discovered special effects, and further pushed the boundaries of cinema to create an art form that endures to this day. Méliès was filming a city scene when his camera jammed, and while developing the film, he discovered the magic he had unknowingly created. He noticed that after fixing the camera, when filming resumed, he had inadvertently discovered a camera trick where positions of objects changed.

Image from the movie 'A Trip to the Moon'.
A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune in French) was a 1902 French adventure film. It was directed by George Méliès. (Image: Georges Méliès/Public domain)

Méliès, a former magician, was captivated by the new medium called films. His powerful narrative impulse helped him create magical transformations on screen, marked by fantastic images and outlandish creativity. Rightly known as the ‘Father of Special Effects’, Méliès transformed films into a narrative medium. 

While makers before him had only created short films that lasted for less than a minute, Méliès combined several of these short features to create his famous 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, in which French astronomers fly to the Moon and encounter Moon creatures before making a spectacular escape back to Earth. 

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Common Questions About Contributions of Thomas Edison and Others to Motion Pictures

Q: When was the first motion picture exhibited publicly?

The first motion picture was shown publicly in 1893 through a viewing device called the Kinetoscope.

Q: What were kinetoscope parlors or nickelodeons?

The Edison Company’s kinetoscope parlors or nickelodeons were boxes in which films were continuously running. Anyone who deposited the required amount of money could peep into the boxes and watch the movie through a magnifying glass.

Q: How did George Méliès invent special effects?

George Méliès had jammed his camera when filming a city scene, but he then resumed his shooting after fixing the camera. However, while developing the film, he discovered that when he was struggling to fix his camera, the traffic had moved on and created a hearse on screen out of images of a moving bus and a horse.

Q: What did the Lumière Brothers invent?

In 1895, the French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière invented their camera and projector, the Cinématographe. The Cinématographe could record, develop, and project film, but the brothers did not appreciate the significance of their invention.

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