Fresh from inventing the recording and playback machine (1877) and the first practical lightbulb (1879), Thomas Edison focused on moving pictures. In 1889, he filed a patent for the Kinetograph, an early movie camera.
The wooden box didn’t look like much. Inside was a complicated mechanism that used a sprocket powered by an electric motor to pull the perforated edge of unexposed celluloid film, which had just been invented by George Eastman. The film moved in front of a lens at a speed of 46 frames per second.
But the device was so large that even Edison called it the “dog house.” “But what a perfectly marvelous dog house!” wrote The Nickelodeon, a brand-new magazine covering the budding movie industry, in 1910. “It stands there in the Edison works as the absolute foundation of an amusement business that encircles the world, giving employment to thousands and numbering its daily devotees by hundreds and hundreds of thousands.”
Edison didn’t stop at the camera. He proceeded to the next obvious thing and invented the Kinetoscope, another wooden box that allowed people to watch movies through a peephole. Edison then hired the Scottish inventor William K.L. Dickson and let him experiment with the devices. Dickson and another movie pioneer named William Heise took the Edison camera for a spin in 1889 (or perhaps 1890 — the records are blurry) and shot “Monkeyshines No. 1,” possibly the first film ever made in the United States.
The film, all 56 seconds of it, probably shows lab worker John Ott “horsing around” – the meaning of “monkeyshines” – in front of the lens. Alternately, the “actor” might also be G. Sacco Albanese, another lab worker at the company. But nobody knows for sure.
Today the film doesn’t look like much, but back then any moving image must have caused a stir. It certainly gave Edison a business idea. In 1893, he erected a wooden building covered with tarpaper behind his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and called it Black Maria. It was perhaps the world’s first movie production studio. It started making film loops for the Kinetoscope.
Hundreds of Edison loops and films survive in the collection of the Library of Congress. They show President William McKinley’s inauguration, Mark Twain, the Sioux Ghost Dance and even a pair of boxing cats (eat that, Buzzfeed!).
Edison later moved the film studio to the Bronx. His mind always on the next big thing, he was already thinking about movie theaters, Technicolor, surround sound and even music videos. “Thus the motion picture of the future will show apparently solid objects projected in natural colors and accompanied in natural reproduction by all the concomitant sounds,” The Nickelodeon quoted him in 1910. “It will revolutionize the stage. The world’s greatest musicians, singers and actors can then be heard in the most insignificant hamlet at a nominal price.”
“The possibilities of the motion picture in the field of entertainment are tremendous and unbounded,” Edison went on, “and opportunity is offered to the inventors of the world to solve some interesting problems before the Utopian state I picture will be realized.”
Sunday’s Oscars will give us an annual taste of the utopia Edison imagined.