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Thomas Edison


Thomas Edison When Thomas Edison and Eadweard Muybridge crossed paths in February 1888, Edison was already world famous for his phonograph, his light bulb and his singularly mesmerizing manner of engaging the world. But Muybridge was not entirely unknown. Ever since he had invented the zoopraxiscope, an early advance in the field of moving pictures, he had been promoting it on both sides of the Atlantic to growing interest. By the time he arrived in West Orange, New Jersey, to deliver a lecture, he was famous enough to get an audience with Edison -- and smart enough to suggest that the phonograph and the zoopraxiscope might be combined.

Edison agreed, and together they worked to capture actors Edwin Booth and Lillian Russell in both sight and sound, thus creating the world's first talkies. The effect was laughably crude, as synchronization was achieved simply by starting the two machines at the same time. What's more, the phonograph had yet to be adapted for large audiences. For Muybridge, this drawbacks were enough for him to abandon the idea on the spot.

Edison, however, was not so quick to give up. He filed a caveat (a preliminary announcement of intentions) with the Patent Office in October, 1888, in which he described what he called a Kinetoscope: a cylinder with photographic images arranged in a spiral pattern around it. These images were meant to be viewed with a magnifying glass, but they proved blurry when enlarged.

Pressing forward, Edison obtained some heavy sheets of celluloid coated with photographic emulsion from John Carbutt of Philadelphia, a pioneer in dry-plate photography, for use as a flexible motion-picture film. By wrapping a 15-inch celluloid sheet around his cylinder, Edison was able to expand the number of photographs for each individual "movie" and succeeded in recording five seconds of living movement.

By late 1889 Edison and his main assistant on the project, William K.L. Dickson, decided that they would have to develop an entirely different kind of apparatus if they were to achieve truly meaningful results. As they zeroed in on their next step, the principle behind the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, which had been introduced several years earlier, clearly influenced their thinking. Instead of using a cylinder, they cut the celluloid into strips, which could then be fed across the focal plane of the camera. This method of viewing motion pictures proved durable enough to survive the entire twentieth century and, even with the introduction of digital movies at the dawn of the new millennium, promises to remain in use for many years to come.

Carbutt's celluloid had the drawback of being stiff (celluloid having first been developed as an ivory substitute), but George Eastman had developed a tougher, lighter and more flexible version of the material exactly when it was needed. Upon hearing of it, Edison coaxed Eastman to provide him with specially designed 50-foot celluloid specimens. As the story goes, Edison was "seraphic" on receiving these specimens. Then, snapping out of his reverie, he sent a message back to Eastman: "That's it -- we've got it -- now work like hell!"

Edison took his own advice and proceeded with all due speed. The experiments went on in West Orange laboratories, first in a locked and darkened Room 5, then in a compound building that was closed to everyone but Dickson, Charles Batchelor and Edison himself. But because Edison was involved in so many different projects at once, progress was slow. The first practical motion picture device was the Kinetoscope, which was a peephole machine rather than a movie projector. It was not delivered to the public until April 14, 1894, when the first Kinetoscope parlors were opened on lower Broadway in New York.

In the meantime, Edison had seen Dickson defect to a rival company and a welter of other movie companies using a wide variety of technologies spring up around him. Indeed, Edison was only one of many inventors who held important claims on motion-picture technology. Nevertheless, his name held great weight, and his motion-picture company enjoyed significant popularity in the early years of the industry.

Although Edison and Eastman became linked through mutual business interests (which were eventually dismantled by the United States Justice Department), they did not actually meet until meet until 1907. Even then they maintained a respectful distance, no doubt in part because of an earlier clash over x-ray photography. Soon after the discovery of x-rays in 1895, Edison developed a fluoroscope that, so he claimed, would make x-ray photographs unnecessary. At the time, Eastman may have been annoyed by the boast, as he was working on a form of x-ray photography for use in dentistry.

By the 1920s, the two inventors had drifted toward friendship, but the shadow of disregard lingered. "Edison is probably the greatest inventor who ever lived," Eastman wrote in 1922, "but when it comes to economics he is about as half baked as Henry Ford... it is a pity that Edison is so intent on showing his weakness."

Be that as it may, Edison continued right on working and inventing until his death in 1931.


written by David Lindsay

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