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Edison and the Invention of Modern Motion Pictures

phonograph proposed muybridge photographic

While Edison struggled to turn his phonograph into a viable commercial machine, he “talked up” its myriad possibilities to the press. One possible application had been suggested to him by Eadweard Muybridge, who, it will be recalled, exhibited his zoopraxiscope at the nearby Orange Music Hall on Saturday, 25 February 1888. Two days later, Muybridge met with Edison at his laboratory. There the photographer-lecturer proposed that they combine his projecting machine with the inventor’s phonograph. Edison was intrigued. A few months later, a journalist visiting the West Orange laboratory reported:

Mr. Edison said that Prof. Muybridge, the instantaneous photographer, had visited him lately and had proposed to him a scheme which, if carried to completion, will afford an almost endless field of instruction and amusement. The photographer said that he was conducting a series of experiments recently and had almost perfected a photographic appliance by which he would be enabled to accurately reproduce the gestures and the facial expression of, for instance, Mr. Blaine in the act of making a speech. This was done, he said by taking some sixty or seventy instantaneous photographs of each position assumed by the speaker, and then throwing them by means of a magic lantern upon a screen. He proposed to Mr. Edison that the phonograph should be used in connection with his invention, and that photographs of Edwin Booth as Hamlet, Lillian Russell in some of her songs, and other artists of note should be experimented with. Mr. Edison, he said, could produce with his instrument the tones of the voice while he would furnish the gestures and facial expression. This scheme met with the approval of Mr. Edison and he intended to perfect it at his leisure ( New York World, 3 June 1888, p. 16).

Perhaps finding some free time a few months later, Edison began to recognize the limitations of Muybridge’s techniques. The images were hand-drawn and few in number. In terms of efficiency, reproducibility, and ease of use, Muybridge’s system could not compare with his phonograph. Reworking the idea until it became his own, Edison was later to deny that Muybridge had ever shared it with him. 17

While Edison wondered what to call his proposed invention, he was determined the name would share the same ending as his phono graph . He first proposed “motograph,” but his patent lawyer, Eugene A. Lewis, advised against the mixing of two languages— moto from the Latin and graph Greek. Lewis then consulted ex-governor Daniel H. Chamberlain, who spoke ancient Greek and suggested “kinesigraph.” Not satisfied, Edison turned to Webster’s Dictionary, found the term kinet or kineto —Greek for "movement"—and adopted it, with the result that the machine to take motion pictures was called a kinetograph and the one that showed them a kinetoscope, derived from the Greek word scopes, “to watch.”

For Thomas Edison and his associates, the phonograph provided a familiar frame of reference as they pursued the development of a motion-picture system. As Edison wrote in October 1888: "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion, and in such a form as to be both Cheap practical and convenient. This apparatus I call a Kinetoscope ‘Moving View.’ " Such parallelism could also prove a stumbling block, however. Edison’s initial idea was to have approximately 42,000 images, each about 1 / 32 of an inch wide, on a cylinder that was the size of his phonograph records. These were to be taken on a continuous spiral with 180 images per turn. The spectator would look at the pictures through a microscope while also listening to sound from the phonograph. Each cylinder would contain twenty-eight minutes of pictures. In March and August 1889 Edison filed two additional caveats that tried to solve some of the problems inherent in his initial formulation. The image surfaces were to be flat, and the cylinders made of glass and wrapped with photographic film. 18

Tracing and accurately dating the various stages of invention that finally led to a commercially successful form of motion pictures is no easy task for the historian. As Gordon Hendricks has demonstrated in The Edison Motion Picture Myth, Edison and his associates distorted the record in their efforts to sustain both the inventor’s patents and his legend. They testified that Edison’s motion-picture achievements occurred years earlier than was actually the case. Newspaper accounts, however, provide a useful source of dating because the inventor, as we have seen with the phonograph, was quick to present his successful accomplishments to the press and prominent members of the public. (Indeed, newspaper accounts were often submitted in patent interference and infringement cases as evidence of an idea’s “reduction to practice.”) Unsuccessful experiments, such as the various applications of the photographic-cylinder idea, are more difficult to document for several reasons. They did not quickly become part of the public record; later testimony distorted what took place, and many relevant documents were lost or destroyed. Hendricks’ exhaustive research, however, has uncovered important clues to the sequence of events and the time frame in which they occurred (even if the author’s virulent anti-Edison attitude frequently hampered his ability to offer credible conclusions).

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