The Edison Motion Picture Myth

Thomas Edison W.K-L. Dickson

The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is something of a surprise, since it is a comparatively recent publication to be found on the Internet Archive. It’s Gordon Hendricks’ The Edison Motion Picture Myth (1961), a notable if idiosyncratic contribution to early film history.

Gordon Hendricks was a determinedly independent film historian who was driven to investigate the history of Edison’s development of the motion picture to overturn the “morass of well-embroidered legend” which existed at that time for the beginnings of American film, especially in the biographies of Thomas Edison. Hendricks wanted also to champion his own hero, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, Edison’s chief technician on the motion picture project.

The book is a meticulous exploration of the history of the Edison experiments 1888-1894 which led to the Kinetoscope peepshow viewer, the Kineotgraph camera, and the world’s first successful motion picture films. Hendricks made an intensive trawl through the archives at the Edison National Historical Site, overturning myth after myth, and producing solid information which has been gratefully turned to by succeeding film historians, but it has to be said the book is not an easy read. Hendricks aranges his information in tortuous fashion, swamping the reader with bewildering detail. As Charles Musser puts it, “the caustic historiography … verged on the impenetrable”. But Hendricks achieved his aim, and Dickson’s pre-eminent role as the inventor of motion pictures is widely accepted by historians (though some challenge the focus on personalities in considering the business of ‘invention’).

If that description of the book doesn’t quite whet the appetite of the non-specialist, there are several good sources online for finding out more about Edison, Dickson, and the invention of American film.

The Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site has biographies of Thomas Edison and W.K-L. Dickson as well as a wealth of associated information.

The Edison National Historic Site has extensive information on all parts of Edison career. The Edisonia section has information on the archives, sound clips, Kinetoscope films, a large number of photographs, and a listing of all 1,093 of Edison’s patents.

The Library of Congress’ American Memory site has a section, Inventing Entertainment, with a large number of early Edison films and sound recordings all freely available for viewing and downloading. See such classics as Dickson Greeting (1891, arguably the first film ever made, illustrated below), Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894), Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (1894) and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895).

Dickson Greeting

The Thomas A. Edison Papers is one of the great research resources on the net. The project they are undertaking is to edit over five million documents. The online edition has 180,000 document images and a searchable database of 121,000 documents and 19,250 names. The seaching mechanism is a bit on the elaborate side, but it’s more than worth it – for example, take a look at over 300 letters written between Edison and Dickson.

And if you don’t like all this revisionist stuff, why not visit the Edison Birthplace Museum, and be reassured that Edison invented it all.

Finally, the book to read is Charles Musser’s filmography de luxe, Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900 (1997).

Gordon Hendricks also wrote Beginnings of the Biograph (1964) The Kinetoscope (1966) and Eadweard Muybridge (1975), all of them rich in reliable, painstakingly uncovered evidence. The Edison Motion Picture Myth is available to download from the Internet Archive (note the mispelling of ‘Edison’ in the title, by the way) in DjVu (13MB), PDF (16MB) and TXT (589KB) formats.

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