By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
The Electrifying, Yet
Stultifying Thomas Edison
In any roll-call of the most important people in all of American history, Thomas Alva Edison (the “Alva” has been traced to Hispanic ancestry) would have to be ranked near the top. Edison was of an era, however, that saw Samuel Morse invent the telegraph and Alexander Graham Bell the telephone.
Yet even against such scientific geniuses, Edison stands alone, and the company that he founded more than one hundred years ago is today among the largest and most influential in the entire world: General Electric. By the time of his death in 1931 at age 84, Edison had patented over 1,000 inventions, including (among his less-known devices) a stock market ticker, a mechanical vote recorder and a battery for an electric car. He also developed the crucial elements that would give rise to three enduring multi-billion dollar American industries: electrical power, recorded music and motion pictures.
Edison is also given credit for inventing the electric light bulb, though historians are not so sure the first prototype was his; but certainly he developed the filament that could keep the light on for far more time than that of the original model.
Moreover, he gave rise to the practice of bringing enormous collective brain power to the process of invention—and the effect that had on his nation’s progress is indisputable. By the end of the 20th century, of the 530 Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine, more than 200 had been Americans. For this reason and many others, the years from 1901 to 2000 has rightfully been called The American Century.
In a way, however, the invention of the motion picture camera and its attendant device, a machine to project an image on a screen, tell us the most about Edison, the Man. To his discredit, he was to loathe to share the glory for the birth of the movies, even though there were many “obstetricians” to the event such as the Lumiere brothers in France and William Friese-Greene in England. But where Edison was monumentally short-sighted was in thinking that the future of movies lay only in his peep-show machine, with only one viewer at a time.
Movies were, for Edison, a diversion from his other “more important” endeavors, and he left the bulk of his movie work to his chief assistant, William Dickson—who would become America’s first film director. In 1894, Dickson, basically a technician but with a flair for the dramatic, directed the first scripted film ever; yet Edison remained far more interested in the mechanics involved and dismissed the idea of movie stories and actors.
For the next decade, Edison continued to dabble in motion pictures, though his main interest was in protecting his patents in the infant industry and in forcing various independent producers and directors out of business.
Ironically, in trying to avoid subpoenas, several of these fledgling film-makers, (including Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille, who would later establish Paramount Pictures) were forced to move a continent away, where they finally set up a few tattered tents in a hilly section just northwest of Los Angeles. It was a sparsely-populated area called Hollywood—and needless to say, the rest is history.
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