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Thomas Edison's Inventions Add Motion to Pictures

As inventors go, Thomas Edison's contributions are undeniable. But beyond his inventions of the light bulb and phonograph, his development of fully functional research and development laboratories in Menlo Park and West Orange, New Jersey resulted in some of his greatest overall achievements. By hiring and directing others in their work, his support of innovation and scientific discovery created many more inventions than any one person is capable of. One such development from Edison's brood was the invention of motion pictures, which paved the way for the modern movie industry.

Movies now conjure images of big productions, glamorous stars, blockbuster opening weekends and, each February, the Academy Awards. And Edison's inventions had a lot to do with it. His interest in developing a method of creating and viewing images in motion may have started as early as 1878, but it wasn't until 1888 that Edison began a quest to invent motion pictures. By then motion pictures were not a revolutionary new idea. In fact, some machinations were already used to display pictures in motion.

In February of 1888, Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer famous for taking sequential photographs of objects in motion, visited Edison at his West Orange lab. Muybridge showed Edison an invention he had developed in 1879 – called a "Zoopraxiscope" – which projected objects in motion obtained from images created by a series of still cameras. He wanted to combine it with Edison's phonograph invention, thus combining sight and sound. Intrigued though he seemed, Edison turned down the photographer.

But Muybridge had given Edison an idea. Edison bought plates from the photographer's "Animal Motion" collection, and, after explaining his concept, assigned William K.L. Dickson the task of creating a contraption that allowed someone to visually capture an object in motion – in essence, he invented a movie camera. On October 17, 1888, Edison filed a caveat with the Patent Office declaring his intentions of creating a device that did "for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear." He called it a "Kinetograph" (roughly equivalent in Greek to to watch movement).

Poster from a 1903 Thomas Edison MovieAccording to the Library of Congress Web site's "History of Edison Motion Pictures" section: "The initial experiments on the Kinetograph were based on Edison's conception of the phonograph cylinder. Tiny photographic images were affixed in sequence to a cylinder, with the idea that when the cylinder was rotated the illusion of motion would be reproduced via reflected light. This ultimately proved to be impractical."

However, inventing doesn't occur in a vacuum. While Dickson labored at Edison's lab, other landmark inventions were making their way into the culture. George Eastman's Kodak company invented nitrocelluloid film in 1888, and in 1889, Edison met a French physiologist, Etienne-Jules Marey, who had developed film strips. By combining the two, Edison now had long strips of durable film that could be pulled across a lens to capture an image. Pulled fast enough, the resulting image would appear to move. These other inventions, and the concept of Muybridge's sequential photographs, allowed Edison to bring together the major elements still used today to create movies.

Under Edison's supervision, Dickson and his associates continued to make progress, eventually patenting the kinetograph and the kinetoscope, an individual viewing mechanism made popular in Nikelodeons. The first public demonstration of a motion picture created from these items was in the Spring of 1893. Edison created myriad movies to fuel the craze as Nickelodeons sprouted up everywhere, and he even went as far as building the world's first movie studio on the grounds of his West Orange complex.

Because of the efforts of many, Edison was able to bring together the inventions and resources that gave birth to the modern film industry. InventHelp believes that this is an important, yet often overlooked, aspect to inventing. One does not have to toil away in obscurity without the input of other ideas. Rather, it could be more productive for inventors to research and improve upon the work of others. In a way, this is how our U.S. Patent system allows inventors to study innovations of others so they can create improvements. As you watch or read about the Academy Awards, remember that Thomas Edison had a hand in inventing the phenomenon of movies and glamour and stars. Then again, so did many, many others.


Back to February 2005 Newsletter

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