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Cat Videos From The Dog House: How Thomas Edison Helped Invent The Motion Picture Industry

Sam Worley
February 07, 2020
In 2020, 10 bucks won’t even buy you a movie ticket. But back in 1930, it’d get you into the Academy Awards themselves — that’s how much admission cost that year for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Things were different back then. In 1930, at the 3rd Academy Awards, the leading film was the war drama “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which took home awards for both Directing and Outstanding Production. The ceremony took place not in Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre — which didn’t open until 2001 — but in the Ambassador Hotel.
And the honorary awards didn’t go to obvious movie-biz luminaries. They went to two titans of American invention — photography pioneer George Eastman and General Electric co-founder Thomas Edison — for their contributions to the very technology of film.

In 1889 Edison filed a patent for the Kinetograph, an early movie camera. The boxy contraption, which Edison dubbed “the dog house,” contained a sprocket powered by an electric motor to pull the perforated edge of unexposed celluloid film — which Eastman had just invented. The film moved in front of a lens at a speed of 46 frames per second.

Of course, the technology to make a movie doesn’t amount to much without the technology to watch a movie — so Edison also designed the Kinetoscope, another wooden box, which allowed people to watch movies through a peephole. In the late 19th century, a couple of inventors hired by Edison gave his new inventions a spin and created “Monkeyshines No. 1,” a 56-second film that might be the first ever made in the U.S.

Edison kept going: In 1893, he built a tarpaper-covered wooden structure behind his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, that he called Black Maria. It produced films and loops that are stored today in the Library of Congress: of Mark Twain, for instance, and President William McKinley’s inauguration. How forward-thinking was Edison? One of the films produced at Black Maria would’ve been well-familiar to users of today’s internet (as well as the viewers who loved to hate one particular 2019 feature film): It was a cat video, featuring the feline pets of one “Dr. Welton” wearing miniature boxing gloves and pawing at each other in a miniature boxing ring.

 width= Part of the first Kinetoscope, invented by Thomas Edison to allow people to watch moving pictures through a peephole. Edison and George Eastman were honored at the 3rd Academy Awards for their contributions to the technology of film. Top and above images credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady.

The feline film was a strange detour, but Edison was just getting started. He went on to open movie studios in Manhattan and the Bronx, one of the country’s first, according to the New York Times. Edison Studios produced short silent films including 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery” (a western, filmed in New Jersey and stored today in the Library of Congress) and 1910’s “Frankenstein.” Then he turned to the next frontier: sound.

Later, in the 1920s, engineers and inventors would scramble to figure out how to project sound into a movie theater while synchronizing it with the action on screen — but here again Edison was ahead of the curve. In 1913 he introduced the Kinetophone, which combined the motion picture technology he’d already created with the phonograph (which he’d also already created). As a projectionist cranked the camera, a cylinder recorder linked by a system of belts and pulleys furnished sound in time, including music and vocal tracks.

If the sound belt slipped or stretched? No problem, he told a projectionist: Just crank the projector slower or faster to match. (In this way, you might say, Edison also invented slow motion.) As the New York Times noted in 1983, shortly after some of these sound recordings were discovered in an archive in New Jersey: “Paradoxically, his imagination, rooted in the engineering practices of the 19th century, seemed more at home with wheels and shafts than with electric concepts he himself had helped create.”

The system was just one step in the evolution toward film with sound. Edison had by this point parted ways with GE, and sold his shares in the company to finance new ventures. But GE, which grew out of the Edison General Electric Co., went on to invest heavily, along with AT&T and RCA, in the development of technology to synchronize sound and moving pictures.

 width= Edison named his tarpaper-covered studio Black Maria, and films produced here are now stored in the Library of Congress. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady.

Partly this involved developing better sound technology. The phonograph, after all, didn’t amplify sound so much as it simply redirected it, via horn, from the record needle. In 1925, two GE engineers, Edward Kellogg and Chester Rice, hit on a solution: a “new type of hornless loudspeaker” whose technology still lies at the heart of modern speakers. AT&T’s Vitaphone, meanwhile, helped solve the synchronization problem, and voila: In 1927, “The Jazz Singer” was the first feature-length film with both synchronized dialogue and music.

It didn’t exactly clean up at the 1st Academy Awards, held in 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, partly because it had been disqualified for contention for Best Picture. The rationale? The use of sound gave it an unfair advantage over its silent competitors. (Edison, in his later years, declared himself unimpressed with what sound brought to the movies: “There isn't any good acting on the screen,” he said. “They concentrate on the voice now and have forgotten how to act. I can sense it more than you because I am deaf.”)

Still, “The Jazz Singer” garnered an honorary award for its historic achievement. Speaking of honorary awards: Edison didn’t attend the 1930 ceremony where his contributions were honored, but he sent along a film to be shown after the banquet. Called “Artistic and Otherwise,” the film looked back on the progress made by the nascent film industry over the past decade. Twenty years earlier, Edison had declared himself bullish on this industry he helped launch. “The possibilities of the motion picture in the field of entertainment are tremendous and unbounded,” Edison said, “and opportunity is offered to the inventors of the world to solve some interesting problems before the Utopian state I picture will be realized.”