Thomas Edison Was a Terrible Man

Thomas Edison

Genius inventor Thomas Edison was also a genius at being awful.

Among the many contradictions that make up the United States of America, one that resonates throughout the lives of nearly everyone is that many of the wonderful toys we get to use can be directly traced to a terrible man. Thomas Edison, whose 170th birthday we commemorate on February 11, was, in fact, terrible. Long celebrated as an American hero for his genius in inventing the electric lightbulb, the telephone and the motion picture, Edison was a far more complicated (and horrible) man than most people know, especially when it came to his legacy in motion pictures.

First of all, to say Edison “invented” the motion picture is inaccurate. Rather, its development was a gradual, global one, with each inventor taking baby steps to the eventual goal of projecting motion pictures on a screen for audiences to view. While photography was originally invented in the 1830s, it wasn’t until the 1880s that camera film could develop an image quickly enough to enable to creation of motion pictures. It’s the primary reason everyone in this era looks so damn serious in photographs of the era. It’s because they had to hold themselves very still for a long, long time while the image developed. Once a photo could be snapped and capture an instantaneous piece of motion within a split second, motion pictures were possible.

After all, a motion picture — in the days before digital — was just a series of 16 to 24 photographs run together through a projector so quickly within a single second that the illusion of motion was created. Eadweard Muybridge, for example, developed the concept of capturing motion with multiple cameras, and Étienne-Jules Marey developed a camera that could capture multiple images, but Thomas Edison took it a step further.

Sort of. While Edison took the credit for the development of the motion picture, it was his assistant W.K.L. Dickson who perfected the concept of using a strip of film with consecutive frames to create the illusion of motion. The Edison Manufacturing Co. then marketed the Kinetoscope, basically a giant box with a viewfinder that enabled a viewer to drop in a coin and watch 30 seconds or so of something moving. In the early 1890s, this was a sensation. While these films seem very primitive with the hindsight of 120 years, to see a photograph move was an absolute miracle. Thomas Edison took full credit, and barely anyone outside academic film circles knows the name W.K.L. Dickson.

It is Thomas Edison who is hailed as an inventive genius, but in the case of motion pictures, he was more a genius of self-promotion. Beyond taking credit for Dickson’s work, which was done under Edison’s employ, Edison also took credit for inventing something he had absolutely nothing to do with.

Thomas Edison

Edison’s Vitascope, which was not really Edison’s.

Two inventors, Charles Francis Jenkins and Thomas Arnat, created an early projection system they called the Phantoscope. This was a highly desirable product, since so many more film tickets could be sold, rather than one coin at a time for the Kinetoscope. However, Jenkins and Arnat did not have the capital required to mass-produce their invention, so they approached the wealthy Edison to finance manufacturing. He agreed to do so, provided that he would be credited with the invention of the projector, which he would rename Edison’s Vitascope. Eventually, using the mechanics of the existing projector as a basis for building their own projector, the Edison Manufacturing Company abandoned the Vitascope, leaving Jenkins and Arnat drifting in the wind.

Watching these 30-second films from the 1890s can be rather startling. Some of them, such as the clip of legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley, are innocuous and historically fascinating. Some, however, are disturbing and offensive, often reflecting the racist entertainment known as blackface minstrelsy popular in the day, and then there was the literally criminal, such as “Electrocuting an Elephant,” which delivers exactly what the title says it does. Topsy the Elephant was a circus elephant who gained a bad reputation for killing a drunken audience member who’d burned Topsy’s trunk with a cigar, and Edison and his associates gladly recorded the execution for posterity in 1903.

Thomas Edison

‘Electrocuting an Elephant’

But wait. There’s more!

Edison was obsessed with protecting his patents, and he owned most motion picture patents in the United States. The Edison Manufacturing Company in the early 20th century would sue many producers who dared build their own cameras and not pay a licensing fee. Eventually, Edison and his competitors, like Essanay, Vitagraph and a handful of others who would pay the fee formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, or the Edison Trust, in 1907. The companies created a monopoly and pushed lesser competitors out of the market.

Thomas Edison

Motion Picture Patents Company, Albert Smith, George Scull, George Kleine, Thomas A. Edison, Siegmund Lubin, H.N. Marvin, J. Stuart Blackton, Frank Marion, Portrait, December 19,1908. Photo by Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images

By 1910 it didn’t take a rocket scientist to build a motion picture camera. The technology was available and known. When independent producers who didn’t belong to the Trust wanted to make their own films, agents from the Trust would seek them out and often take their equipment at gunpoint. Independent producers, like Carl Laemmle, who would found Universal Pictures in 1912, did everything they could to avoid Edison’s goons. Laemmle, for example, even sailed his entire crew to Cuba to film in secret.

Thomas Edison, by supporting strong-armed goons who would run around threatening, sabotaging and shooting at independent producers, did, however, contribute to the birth of Hollywood. Until around 1910, the epicenter of the American film industry was Fort Lee, New Jersey, near Edison’s headquarters. While some independent producers like Laemmle escaped to Cuba, other independent producers fled to Southern California, where they could make a break for Mexico if they saw Edison’s goons headed their way.

Thomas Edison

MPI / Getty Images

While the year-round sunny climate and a wealth of differing landscapes in a relatively small radius also contributed to the film industry moving to Southern California, the ability to run across the border to avoid gunmen was also a big consideration.

Fortunately, the Edison Trust was ultimately doomed. In 1915 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Trust dissolved after the Department of Justice filed an antitrust suit three years earlier. Edison’s movie company, along with all the movie companies in the Trust, would all be out of business within the next several years because their filmmaking techniques had all fallen far behind those of their independent competitors. The ironic part of the fall of Edison’s company was that they’d spent so much time trying to defend the manufacture of their equipment that they forgot to make movies an art form.

By the 1920s filmmaking would quickly become the fourth largest industry of any kind in the U.S., leaving behind Thomas Edison, a terrible man. end


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