The Film 100: Thomas Edison, no. 10


Born: February 11, 1847, Milan, OH
Died: October 18, 1931, West Orange, NJ

Patents have ceased to give any protection to inventions. It’s cheaper to steal them.
—Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison’s profound effect on the film industry goes well beyond any of the world-record 1,093 patents he held for gadgetry. His international reputation as a great innovator was instrumental in consolidating the bright minds and the vital inventions that comprised the first camera and projector. He became the ambassador of a new art form that he himself hardly appreciated. As the world’s fascination with movies became undeniable, he sought to control the entire industry. Eventually, his efforts to profit from the movie craze led to the darkest period in film history.

Stories of the brash inventor are the stuff of myth. Hearing problems motivated the tinkering young Thomas to develop the telephone transmitter, mimeograph machine, and phonograph. His most lucrative invention, the stock ticker, provided the funding for the New Jersey labs that would lend him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” There, a large staff of creative minds worked together in think tanks on key technologies.

The Film 100
1. W.K. Laurie Dickson
2  Edwin S. Porter
3. Charlie Chaplin
4. Mary Pickford
5. Orson Welles
6. Alfred Hitchcock
7. Walt Disney
8. D.W. Griffith
9. Will Hays
10 Thomas Edison
11. John Wayne
12. J.R. Bray
13. Billy Bitzer
14. Jesse Lasky
15. George Eastman
16. Sergei Eisenstein
17. André Bazin
18. Irving Thalberg
19. Thomas Ince
20. Marlon Brando
21. Louis B. Mayer
22. Greta Garbo
23. Robert Flaherty
24. Lon Chaney
25. Anita Loos
26. George Méliès
27. Adolph Zukor
28. John Gilbert
29. Max Fleischer
30. John Ford
31. William Fox
32. George Lucas
33. Linwood Gale Dunn
34. Eadweard Muybridge
35. Katharine Hepburn
36. Winsor McCay
37. Stanley Kubrick
38. Buster Keaton
39. James Agee
40. Fritz Lang
41. Marcus Loew
42. Cedric Gibbons
43. James Cagney
44. Ben Hecht
45. Ingmar Bergman
46. Humphrey Bogart
47. Leon Schlesinger
48. Louella Parsons
49. Roger Corman
50. Edith Head
51. Bernard Herrmann
52. Gary Cooper
53. Mike Todd
54. Ernst Lubitsch
55. Sidney Poitier
56. Saul Bass
57. Billy Wilder
58. Bette Davis
59. Erich von Stroheim
60. Max Factor
61. Auguste and Louis Lumière
62. Woody Allen
63. Clark Gable
64. David O. Selznick
65. Gregg Toland
66. Lillian Gish
67. William Cameron Menzies
68. Lucille Ball
69. Samuel Rothafel
70. Akira Kurosawa
71. Marilyn Monroe
72. Vittorio De Sica
73. Natalie Kalmus
74. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
75. Willis O’Brien
76. Shirley Temple
77. Yakima Canutt
78. Sam Peckinpah
79. Jackie Coogan
80. Federico Fellini
81. Leni Riefenstahl
82. Steven Spielberg
83. Sam Warner
84. Jean-Luc Godard
85. Robert De Niro
86. Fred Astaire
87. Francis Ford Coppola
88. Ted Turner
89. Clint Eastwood
90. Dalton Trumbo
91. Dennis Hopper
92. Richard Hollingshead
93. Melvin Van Peebles
94. John Chambers
95. Mack Sennett
96. Martin Scorsese
97. Karl Struss
98. Busby Berkeley
99. John Hubley
100. John Cassavetes

Although the mechanics of the phonograph became the basis for his experiments with recording moving pictures, the incandescent lamp was perhaps the more significant Edison contribution. Using it in combination with low-voltage batteries, Edison’s team of assistants, headed by the zealous W. K. Laurie Dickson, was able to illuminate photographs that flickered past an eyehole in the first Kinetoscope, introduced in 1892 in New York.

Although the Kinetoscope launched the motion picture industry, the images were displayed in nickelodeon theaters to one customer at a time. Dickson urged Edison to build a projection system to display films to large groups of people at one sitting. But Edison regarded the Kinetoscope as a toy, best suited for curious children who were willing to pay five cents to watch a six-second performance of a dancing woman or a jumping dog. Adults were not interested, he argued, and therefore there was no money in projection. He ignored the protests of Dickson, occupied himself with other inventions and failed to file his patents in a timely manner. Imitations of the Kinetoscope sprouted up almost overnight, and its rapid dissemination across America and Europe cut deeply into Edison’s profits.


So, heeding Dickson’s advice, Edison pursued a projector system, called the Vitascope upon its introduction in 1895. This time, Edison patented the intermittent movement of his projector, made possible by a synchronized shutter.  However, there was still a problem feeding film through the device; a revolving Maltese cross ripped through the sprocket holes of the celluloid when the reels pulled the film through the aperture, destroying the strips completely. Edison himself brilliantly solved this problem by creating a simple loop in the feed that allowed enough slack to prevent the ripping.  These few small innovations made the Edison equipment reliable enough to become the choice of theater owners by 1895.

But cries of patent infringement followed the Vitascope’s success. While developing the new system, Dickson had persuaded other inventors that Edison’s stature was respected and marketable and he urged them to file their patents under the Edison name. Although most of the men were paid handsomely, and the process conducted legally, it is clear this method was unscrupulous, and the advances of some pioneers were likely stolen when they could not be coerced. “Everyone steals in industry and commerce,” Edison said in his own defense. “I’ve stolen a lot myself.  The thing is to know how to steal.” Inflamed over these claims on his patents, Edison began a vicious legal war, seeking full credit for the invention of motion pictures and a ban on the use of any film equipment not manufactured by his company. But a Supreme Court ruling of 1902 concluded that Edison’s contributions did not constitute the actual invention of motion pictures. The combined discoveries of others were deemed critical.

Furious over the decision, Edison vowed to win in the marketplace. Though he had a substantial share of commercial moviemaking devices, he wanted more control.  In 1908, he solicited several companies representing all major producers and distributors in the industry: Vitagraph, Biograph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Kalem, Pathé, Méliès, and Gaumont. Together, these giants formed the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) in 1909, commonly known as the Edison Trust. The Trust was a puppet organization in which Edison pulled all the strings, and his demands were tyrannical. He insisted that films be limited to no more than two reels, believing that movie audiences wouldn’t sit for twenty minutes at a time.  He also wanted there to be no screen credit for actors, fearing their popularity might significantly raise the salary structure.

Most stunning, Edison forced independent filmmakers, including Adolph Zukor and Sam Goldwyn, to sign restrictive contracts that guaranteed the camera and projection equipment used in their motion picture production would be manufactured by the Trust companies exclusively. No producer was allowed to buy or rent any materials from other companies without suffering retaliation. Key to the power of the group was the inclusion of George Eastman, who refused to sell negative stock to filmmakers who did not cooperate with the guidelines set by the Trust. Producers who, like Thomas Ince and Jesse Lasky, refused to go along with the Trust decrees and found clever ways to continue filming were physically threatened by Edison’s hired henchmen. In a series of events that seem straight from a gangster movie, the MPPC sent muscular thugs around town to all movie sets to ensure that producers were complying. When they came across equipment that was not manufactured by a Trust company, they destroyed it and roughed up the crew. Rather than buckles, several studios decided to make pictures overseas until the situation came to a resolution. Others packed up their operations and moved to Texas or California to escape the violence. This exodus west is responsible for the formation of Hollywood.

But some independents stayed and fought. William Fox, who led the charge against Edison and his cronies, broke their monopolistic practices in a highly charged court case in 1917. Shattered and embarrassed, Edison retired to his laboratory and dropped his interest in film entirely. Ironically, Edison’s life would later be honored in films made by some of the same studios he once attempted to stifle; Young Tom Edison and Edison, the Man were both made by MGM in 1940.

The influence of Thomas Edison on motion pictures is dichotomous. His prestige was crucial in corralling the patented discoveries necessary to make a workable camera and projector. His earliest inventions became essential in illuminating moving pictures. He also contributed important solutions to the problems of intermittent film movement. But his eight-year campaign of terror against independent filmmakers was perhaps more widely felt, and in the end it strengthened their resolve to maintain creative freedom. Had he succeeded in stamping out his detractors and gaining a permanent grip on the movie business, his single-minded focus on making money might have prevented film from ever becoming a canvas for the expression of ideas.

To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.

Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.