Thomas Alva Edison

Active - 1897 - 1914  |   Born - Feb 11, 1847   |   Died - Oct 18, 1931   |  

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

Thomas Alva Edison was one of the world's great inventors, and it is a small wonder that he was hailed as the Wizard of Menlo Park by his contemporaries. Edison was responsible for creating the stock ticker, the first copy machines, the incandescent light bulb, the carbon transmitter/microphone (which made Alexander Bell's telephone viable), and the phonograph. He also oversaw the development of the first devices for filming and exhibiting motion pictures. His movies had their genesis in his enormous West Orange, NJ, laboratory when he came up with the idea of recording moving pictures much in the way that his phonograph recorded live sounds. The invention, called the Edison Kinetophongraph or Kinetophone, was actually developed by Edison's assistant, W.K.L. Dickson in 1889. Dickson based his design on the European Zoetrope, a hand-turned cylinder covered with photographic images on glass plates. The first kinetophonograph used strips of celluloid film invented by John Carbutt, but later employed Eastman's innovative 35 mm celluloid film stock, which came on long rolls. Synchronized with a phonograph, the invention projected pictures. This invention later inspired Edison to assign Dickson to create the first electrically operated Kinetograph camera; with it, in late 1890, he made the first film, Monkeyshines, a brief antic that featured Edison employee Fred Ott. Though Dickson envisioned that these motion pictures would be projected upon a large screen, Edison wanted to promote an individualized viewing system and assigned Dickson to engineer the Kinetoscope. It became a popular attraction, and soon entire parlors, called nickelodeons, became all the rage. There, viewers would pay a nickel and stand before a cabinet to watch an exciting film that lasted 60-90 seconds. The first nickelodeon opened in New York in the spring of 1894. To make these films, Edison and Dickson created the world's first movie studio, Black Maria.

Dickson eventually left Edison to found his own film company -- which eventually became Biograph -- and to perfect his Mutograph camera and projector. Dickson became Edison's first real competitor when Edison failed to patent his movie-making inventions and refused to develop a large-screen projection devise, believing it would never make money. Edison's tune abruptly changed when he learned that, in 1894, France's Lumière Brothers had stolen his ideas and those of others to develop their Cinematographe, a camera and projection device. The following year, they showed the first public films, which caught on like wild fire. Always the capitalist, Edison immediately initiated a lawsuit to insure that he was given total credit for the film invention. The suit lasted many years, but in 1909, he succeeded in helping launch the Motion Picture Patents Company to regulate the number of independent producers in the burgeoning film industry.

In 1895, eager to catch up to the Lumières, Edison teamed up with Thomas Armat, the man behind the Vitascope system, and, in the spring of 1896, they exhibited the first big-screen film in New York. Edison's company kept producing films at his Black Maria studio through 1907, before moving his filmmaking operation to an enormous, all-glass studio in the Bronx, New York. In 1917, the monopoly created by the Motion Picture Patents Company was destroyed. Shortly thereafter, Edison retired from making films. He died in 1931. In 1940, MGM created a pair of biopics to pay tribute to the great inventor: Young Tom Edison, starring Mickey Rooney, and Edison, The Man, featuring Spencer Tracy in the title role.