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Reading 2: Edison and Popular Culture

Every time we play recorded music, go to the movies, or watch a videotape on our VCR, we enjoy the benefits of Thomas Edison's genius and hard work. Edison lived to see great industries arise from his inventions: electric light and power, sound recording, and motion pictures.

Beginning with the first tinfoil phonograph in 1877 and continuing almost to his death in 1931, Edison and his researchers made countless improvements to the phonograph, constantly striving to achieve the finest sound reproduction possible. At first Edison thought the phonograph primarily suitable only for business purposes like the dictation of letters. What the public really wanted, however, was a machine to play music. Recognizing the biggest market for the phonograph, Edison began producing musical records in the early 1890s. No matter how scratchy and crude those early cylinder records seem today, they were wondrous indeed to buyers who were hearing recorded sound for the very first time. Modern records, cassette tapes, and compact discs all trace back directly to Edison's early experiments with sound recording.

Not satisfied with merely recording sound, Edison turned his attention to another of the senses: sight. In October 1888 Edison wrote that he intended to do "for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion...."1 Thus began Edison's development of the kinetograph (motion picture camera) and kinetoscope (viewer).

Over the next five years Edison experimented with the making of motion pictures, erecting the Black Maria, the world's first structure especially constructed to be a motion picture studio. These first motion pictures were not projected on a theater screen. Instead viewers looked through a peephole mounted on top of a box with the projector inside. For a nickel, viewers could look through the peephole to see films of men at work, like Blacksmith Scene, or a dancer, Carmencita, or perhaps a scene of everyday life, like The Barbershop. Although lasting less than a minute, these first short films excited audiences as much as any film seen today.

The first films were also silent, but in 1895 Edison attempted to combine sound recording and motion pictures in a device he called the kinetophone. Unfortunately, this early effort at talking motion pictures proved unsuccessful. More than 30 years would pass before sound films were here to stay.

The peephole kinetoscope was a success, but Edison and other researchers realized that projected films were the next step in motion picture development. Although practical film projection was first achieved in Europe, the first commercially successful American motion picture projector was "Edison's Vitascope." The vitascope combined Edison's name recognition with the work of Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat to launch the era of projected film in the United States. When the vitascope premiered in New York City in 1896, the sensation of the evening was a film titled Rough Sea at Dover made by Englishman Robert Paul. So realistic was the view of waves crashing on Dover beach that people in the front rows actually shrank back in their seats, fearful of getting wet.

Edison wanted to invent things to improve the life of all people, whether it was light for their homes, phonographs for their homes and businesses, or motion pictures for their education and entertainment. Just as he often built on the work of those who preceded him, so, too, have others built on Edison's work. Every time we watch a movie or listen to our favorite compact disc, we enjoy the legacy of Edison's genius. But true genius, said Edison, is "hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and common sense."2 His own example of dedication and determination may be the true legacy of Thomas Edison.

1 Thomas A. Edison, Patent Caveat 110, October 8, 1888, Edison National Historical Site Archives.
2 Frank L. Dyer and Thomas C. Martin, Edison: His Life and Inventions (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1910), 607.


1. Why do you think Edison's phonograph became such a popular household possession?

2. What was the Black Maria?

3. How did people watch the first motion pictures?

4. How do you think you would have felt if you had been present when the vitascope premiered in New York City?

Reading 2 was compiled from records of the Curatorial Collection at Edison National Historic Site.




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