Thomas Edison & The World’s First Movie Studio

What comes to mind when you see the name of Thomas Edison? Visions, perhaps, of a wild-haired inventor, pacing his laboratory. Or maybe we imagine him hunched over paperwork, fraught with nervous tension, his eyes sandpapery and raw from lack of sleep. When recalling figures that have influenced the film industry, this great American inventor, hero of the scientific world, would not be the first name to roll off the tongue. But in the early days of the business, Edison made his mark – and, some believe, may have even played a part in inspiring companies to set up base in Hollywood.

Thomas Edison

First, the obvious – technology. Thomas Edison is credited, among other things, with the development of the motion picture camera – the Kinetograph, as it was otherwise known. Whilst Edison was responsible for the electromechanical work, his employee William K. L. Dickson – who, it is thought, was more influential in creating the finished product than Edison himself – tackled photographic and optical development. Completed in 1891, the Kinetograph was originally placed inside penny arcades and was first exhibited to the public in May of that year.

What may be less well-known is that Edison himself created and owned a film company. In existence from 1894 until 1918, Edison Studios made over 1000 short films and even a few feature-lengths. Examples include 1896’s The Kiss, notable for being the very first example of a kiss shown on film, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery (the first Western) and the earliest adaptation of Frankenstein in 1910.

‘The Kiss’ 1896

But his relationship with the film industry was not always a positive one. Towards the end of 1908, Edison formed the MPPC (Motion Picture Patents Company), a trust which included Eastman Kodak (at that time the largest supplier of film stock) and many of the then major film companies. Although the MPCC did bring some benefits – such as introducing a standard rental rate for licensed films – Edison’s trust was to become an overbearing and heavy-handed force, to the point where it is sometimes referred to as “Edison’s plot to hijack the movie industry.”

How was this plan set into shape? Edison’s idle daydreams of holding court over the increasingly popular film business were actualised by the MPCC establishing a monopoly on the features of filmmaking. As a member of the trust, Eastman Kodak agreed to only sell film stock to other members, which meant that independent companies were frozen out. Additionally, as the trust controlled the patents on motion picture cameras, this resulted in only MPCC studios having permission to film.

The world’s first film production studio – Edison’s Black Maria

The MPCC built a rigid system of rules and was not timid about taking swift legal action against independent companies and filmmakers who were using their equipment without authorisation. It has been claimed that this was one of the reasons that led to numerous companies bolting to Hollywood – California not only gracing them with an agreeable climate but also being a safe distance from the vengeful Edison’s New Jersey home. Setting up base in California made it more difficult for the MPCC to sue or otherwise bother the filmmakers who did not wish to abide by their stringent codes.

It has been written that were Thomas Edison to have succeeded in his endeavours, “he would have killed the motion picture industry or at least delayed its flowering by a generation”. Not satisfied with a tight grip on the industry technology-wise, the inventor was also prone to regulating content, maintaining that “nothing is of greater importance to the success of the motion picture interests than films of good moral tone”, which gave him a common cause with the moral enforcers of the era. One such self-proclaimed upholder of all that was decent and respectable, wrote scathingly of the droves of wide-eyed cinemagoers, complaining that “I would have been more comfortable on board a cattle train than where I sat…what is hardest to swallow is that the tastes of this seething mass of human cattle are the tastes that have dominated, or at least set, the standard of American moving pictures.”

Thankfully for the flowering of the motion picture industry, many independent companies and distributors chose not to get with Edison’s program, and the MPCC ultimately floundered into decline, with the final nail in the coffin being a federal court’s decision in 1915. In the case of United States vs Motion Picture Patents Co it was determined that the MPCC’s actions were “far beyond what was necessary to protect the use of patents or the monopoly which went with them.” The company officially came to an end three years later, but its steady waning in power had been ongoing for some time. “What finally did the Edison monopoly in,” wrote Matthew Lasar in a business article titled Take Heed, Tech Giants, “was the assumption that its legal/technical dominance over the trade, and its moral stance, would trump the public’s demand for ever more creative motion pictures…they didn’t. Instead, they flocked to Carl Laemmle and his fellow independents’ ‘illegal’ movies.” By the time a federal court pronounced that the MPCC had terrorised exchangers and exhibitors and described its methods as “arbitrary, oppressive and high-handed”, Thomas Edison’s reign over films had already stuttered to a halt.

by Guest Blogger Michelle Gibson