If you love movies, you owe a lot of thanks to Thomas Edison. He was a brilliant inventor and a pioneer in the development of motion pictures, but he was only one out of many.
Edison hired William Kennedy Laurie Dickson as his motion picture director. Dickson was the one who invented the Kinetoscope, first demonstrated in 1891.
The movies that ran on the Kinetoscope are some of the earliest existing film on the planet.
Film in the 1890s was shown to the public in Kinetoscope parlors, which were kind of like the ancestors of video arcades. They were first opened in 1894 and through the peepholes you could watch short films, the most popular of which showcased dancing, juggling, clowning, natural wonders from around the world and staged historical events.
Edison and Dickson built a small room specifically for making these films adjacent to Edison’s laboratory. The studio was covered in black tar paper on the outside to prevent unwanted light from creeping in. When they wanted to adjust the light, they would open the roof manually. The studio was so dark that it was nicknamed the Black Maria, which was slang for “paddy wagon.” The Black Maria was the first film studio in movie history.
Edison wanted his films to be viewed through a peephole because he was worried about the poor-looking quality of film when it was projected onto a screen, but when he finally embraced projection, he had nothing to do with the creation of the upgraded version of his Kinetoscope, but he did buy and sell it as his own invention in 1896.
It was called the Vitascope. It was invented by Thomas Armat and was a projecting version of Dickson’s Kinetoscope.
The first Edison projection for a paying audience was on April 23, 1896 at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall on 34th Street and Broadway in New York City, later the site of Macy’s.
Other film milestones that Edison was involved in, although not directly responsible for, include the first film to use special effects, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), directed for the peephole by Alfred Clark (the man who replaced Dickson after he left due to tension and dissatisfaction working for Edison). Before the queen gets her head cut off on the chopping block, the actor was replaced by a dummy in an invisible camera cut.
Edison’s The Kiss (1896) was the first time a man and a woman kissed each other on the lips on film, which was kind of like the equivalent of a sex scene in today’s Hollywood: slightly scandalous and slightly embarrassing to watch in a room full of strangers. The first wave of moralism towards movies, which would later turn into the Hays Code, had come into being. It was the first time Catholics would call for movie censorship. Just to put it in some perspective, kissing in public could lead to prosecution in those days, so it wasn’t exactly surprising that the church was so against it being depicted on the big screen.
When Dickson left Edison after inventing the Kinetoscope, he became the “D” in K.M.C.D. Syndicate and began inventing for them. K.M.C.D.’s first project was the Mutoscope, a peephole machine that was more effective and more popular than the Kinetoscope. The Mutoscope offered larger pictures and a more user-friendly hand crank. They have been in use for decades.
Dickson also invented a better projector than Edison’s Vitascope called the Biograph. The films projected on a Biograph were larger and clearer, and the films being projected were also more interesting. Biograph was the film company that would launch the careers of many huge figures in film history such as D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters and others.
Another major Edison competitor was Vitagraph, founded by Englishman J. Stuart Blackton, a reporter and cartoonist for the New York World who animation fans may recognize as the director of the films The Enchanted Drawing (1900) and Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906).
Ironically, Blackton first became interested in film after visiting Edison in the Black Maria. Blackton copied Edison’s machine and called it Vitagraph (which was not-so-subtly aped from Edison’s Vitascope).
Vitagraph’s films weren’t as spectacular as Biograph’s but the company lasted longer, and was eventually bought by the Warner brothers in 1925 and used to distribute their films.
For all of Edison’s contributions, there were many people in the film industry more worthy of praise. W.K.L. Dickson was the mastermind behind the Kinetoscope, Thomas Armat was a pioneer in the popularization of film projection, filmmakers like George Méliès and Edwin S. Porter were much better storytellers than Edison.
Edison was a mechanical genius, but not a good film producer.