as the “Wizard of Menlo Park”, Thomas Alva Edison was born
in Milan, Ohio on February 11th 1847. When he was seven, the
Edison family moved to Port Huron, Michigan where the young
Tom Edison set up his first chemical laboratory in the basement
of their large house.
He attended school for only three months and
at the age of twelve began selling newspapers on the Grand
Trunk railway devoting every second of his spare time to experimentation
with printing presses and electrical and mechanical apparatus.
In 1862 at the age of fifteen Edison published
his own weekly paper - The Grand Trunk Herald - printing it
in a freight car that served as a laboratory. Edison was taught
the new science of Telegraphy out of gratitude from a Station
Agent whose son Edison had saved by snatching him from the
path of a moving train. The skills he learnt in Telegraphy
afforded him a job as a Telegraph operator which took him
across the country from Stratford in Canada to Adrian, Michigan;
Fort Wayne and Boston.
It was while working as a telegraph operator
that Edison made his first invention - a telegraphic repeating
instrument which enabled messages to be transmitted automatically
over a second line without the presence of an operator.
Edison settled briefly in Boston and secured
employment; he, again devoted all of his spare time to his
research and experimentation during which time he invented
a vote recorder which although it had its merits was not sufficiently
practical to warrant its adoption. At the age of 21 he travelled,
almost penniless to New York City and obtains employment at
the Gold and Stock Telegraph Company after fixing a broken
down machine. Earning $300 a month he greatly improved their
apparatus and service, again spending his spare time devoted
to working of new inventions.
Among his many inventions during his employment
in New York was the “Universal Stock Ticker” and generated
around $40,000 from the sale of this any many other inventions.
With this new-found wealth Edison moved to Newark and opened
a manufacturing shop there making stock tickers.
He remained in Newark until 1875 when, at the
age of 29 he moved to Menlo Park in New Jersey and the following
year established a laboratory there.
In his new premises, Edison carried out some
of most important work, he devised an automatic telegraph
system that made possible a greater speed and range of transmission.
He developed machines that made it possible to transmit several
telegraphic messages on one line increasing the usefulness
of existing telegraph lines. Edison also invented a Carbon
Telephone Transmitter which proved important in the development
of the telephone - something which had recently been invented
by American Physicist and Inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
In 1877, Edison recorded sound. His phonograph employed a
tinfoil cylinder onto which sound was mechanically etched.
He developed this idea later in his career using
wax discs instead of tinfoil cylinders. Two years later, Edison
exhibited what is often regarded as his greatest invention
- the Incandescent electric light bulb. In the years that
followed Edison occupied himself with the improvement of the
light-bulbs and the dynamos for generating the necessary electric
current. Such was his research in this area that on September
4th 1882 Edison started operation of the world’s first large
central electric power station on Pearl Street in New York.
In the spring of 1883, Edison employed W.K.L
Dickson as his assistant. 1887 saw another move for Edison,
this time from Menlo Park to West Orange, New Jersey.On this
new site, Edison constructed a large laboratory for his experimentation
and research. Motivated by the work of Marey and Muybridge
Edison wrote on October 8th 1888 that, “I am experimenting
upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph
does for the ear.” Most of the experimentation and research
was carried out by Edison’s assistant, Dickson, with early
experiments employing techniques developed with the phonograph.
These involved arranging rows of tiny photographs on the outside
of a cylinder with a light, or igniting sparks inside. Experiments
using this idea as a starting point continued for some years.
On August 2nd 1889 Edison sailed to Europe and
met with Jules Marey and witnessed the results achieved by
Marey’s roll-film Chronophotographe. Edison returned to America
with his faith in the cylinder’s shaken although he continued
to experiment with this format. In October of 1890, one of
Edison’s laboratory workers Sacco Albanese was the subject
for the first film to employ the cylinder method. The so called
“Monkeyshines” clearly displayed the limitations of this method
of presentation as viewing required huge monocular magnification,
and even then the images would appear impossibly grainy. As
a result, the cylinder method was abandoned in favour of film.
With Dickson leading the experimentation and
research the Kinetoscope was developed - a peepshow device
which required viewers to peer into the top of a large cabinet
where they would be treated to a minute or so of moving pictures.
The first Kinetoscope prototype was ready by May 20th 1891
and was demonstrated to a Convention of the National Federation
of Women’s Clubs invited to the laboratory by Edison’s wife.
In June of 1892 Edison announced his intention to included
his Kinetoscope in the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago
the following year.
Realising that a necessity for the Exhibition’s
Kinetoscopes would be films to view, Dickson perfected a working
camera in October of 1892 and December saw the erection of
a studio in the grounds of Edison’s Laboratory which became
known as the Black Maria, thanks largely to its resemblance
to the police vans of the time. The first official public
demonstration of the Kinetoscope was on May 9th 1893 at the
Brooklyn Institute of Art’s and Sciences. The audience at
this demonstration were lined up and filed past the machine
to view a Blacksmith Scene.
Despite the best efforts of Edison’s company,
the Kinetoscopes were not ready in time for the Exhibition
One of the first films made for the Kinetoscope
and copyrighted by Dickson was the now legendary “Record of
a Sneeze” made in early January 1894. The subject of this
film was one Fred Ott and each individual frame showing his
antics were recorded on paper with its own number and sent,
on January 7th to the Library of Congress for copyright. The
desire to meet Edison and appear in his new moving pictures
was great and this meant he was able to attract popular stage
personalities to appear in short films - generally based on
Vaudeville acts. Each of these events was usually a staged
event - even the early films such as the Blacksmith Scene
were recorded in the studio requiring an Anvil to be facilitated
- the workers from Edison’s machine room who appear in this
film, can be seen pausing from their hammering and pass around
a bottle of drink.
The first Kinetoscope’s were ready for shipping
on April 6th and ten were sent to 1155 Broadway in New York
City owned by the Holland Brothers. This was the location
for the first Kinetoscope Parlour which was opened on April
14th 1894. The Kinetoscopes were arranged in two rows of five
with a brass rail around for customers to lean on. Kinetoscope
Parlours quickly opened across the country - the marketing
for these parlours was handled by Norman Charles Raff and
Frank. R. Gammon and became known as the Kinetoscope Company.
A second group was formed - the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company
- by Gray and Otway Latham, to market the Kinetoscopes and
The Latham’s saw the possibilities in recording
prize-fights which were against the law in many states and
such fights became popular with Kinetoscope viewers. The first
foreign Kinetoscope Parlour opened on October 7th 1894 at
70 Oxford Street in London but by the end of 1894 the Kinetoscope
craze was dying down and Edison’s failure to patent the Kinetoscope
properly meant his developments were much copied. In December
of 1895, Thomas Armat demonstrated his projecting Phantoscope
to entrepreneurs Raff and Gammon, who in turn approached Edison
with a view to developing.
Edison, who had seen his peephole Kinetoscope
losing popularity to other motion picture projecting devices
such as the Lumière brother’s Cinématographe agreed renaming
the Phantoscope the Vitascope and marketing under the banner
“Edison’s Vitascope”. At a demonstration of the Vitascope
Edison played the role of its inventor convincingly well.
During his career, Edison patented over a thousand
inventions and received many notable awards - in 1928 he received
the Congressional Gold Medal for “development and application
of inventions that have revolutionised civilisation in the
Edison died in West Orange on October 18th 1931
aged eighty four.