kottke.org posts about Thomas Edison

Boxing cats filmed by Thomas Edison in 1894Feb 22 2013

The electric lighbulb, the phonograph, and the movie camera were invented (or significantly improved upon) by Thomas Edison, so lets give him credit for one more: LOLcats:

This short film was shot at the world's first movie studio, The Black Maria, located in West Orange, NJ. The entire building was built on a turntable so that the building could rotate with the sun for the best lighting conditions. (via "robin sloan")

Only surviving film footage of Mark TwainAug 06 2012

It was shot by Thomas Edison in 1909 about a year before Twain's death.

(via the atlantic)

AC/DC, the Westinghouse Edison rivalryNov 18 2011

The battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over direct and alternating current got ugly. Really ugly, with Edison gleefully electrocuting dozens of dogs, an elephant, and even a man with "dangerous" alternating current.

When New York State sentenced convicted murderer William Kemmler to death, he was slated to become the first man to be executed in an electric chair. Killing criminals with electricity "is a good idea," Edison said at the time. "It will be so quick that the criminal can't suffer much." He even introduced a new word to the American public, which was becoming more and more concerned by the dangers of electricity. The convicted criminals would be "Westinghoused."

Westinghouse was livid. He faced millions of dollars in losses if Edison's propaganda campaign convinced the public that his AC current would be lethal to homeowners. Westinghouse contributed $100,000 toward legal fees for Kemmler's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was argued that death in the electric chair amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Both Kemmler and Westinghouse were unsuccessful, and on August 6, 1890, Kemmler was strapped into Harold Brown's chair at Auburn prison and wired to an AC dynamo. When the current hit him, Kemmler's fist clenched so tight that blood began to trickle from his palm down the arm of the chair. His face contorted, and after 17 seconds, the power was shut down. Arthur Southwick, "the father of the electric chair," was in attendance and proclaimed to the witnesses, "This is the culmination of ten years work and study. We live in a higher civilization today."

Yet behind the dentist, Kemmler began to shriek for air.

(thx, peter)

1899 trip across the Brooklyn Bridge filmed by EdisonNov 05 2010

This was filmed in 1899 from a train crossing the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan by Edison Manufacturing Co.

The film sold for $22.50 in the Edison films catalog.

Gladstone's voiceAug 12 2010

William Gladstone was very nearly Abraham Lincoln's exact contemporary, both born in 1809 (Lincoln was 10 months older), only he was born in Liverpool, not Kentucky. He was a legendary orator and liberal lion, like an approximation of Lincoln and Ted Kennedy. He served as a member of parliament for almost 50 years, including as Prime Minster four times, before retiring in 1894. (Could you imagine if Lincoln had lived until 1894?)

He also had a great nickname: G.O.M., for "Grand Old Man." His Tory counterpart Disraeli called him "God's Only Mistake."

In 1888, a recording was made of Gladstone's voice on a phonograph cylinder and sent to Thomas Edison. So even though we don't have Lincoln's voice, we have Gladstone's. This is a section of the text he read:

The request that you have done me the honour to make - to receive the record of my voice - is one that I cheerfully comply with so far as it lies in my power, though I lament to say that the voice which I transmit to you is only the relic of an organ the employment of which has been overstrained. Yet I offer to you as much as I possess and so much as old age has left me, with the utmost satisfaction, as being, at least, a testimony to the instruction and delight that I have received from your marvellous invention. As to the future consequences, it is impossible to anticipate them. All I see is that wonders upon wonders are opening before us.

Via Max Deveson at the BBC.

Update: Lainey Doyle tips me that the audio link above is most likely of a recording misattributed to Gladstone. There have been a few disputed Gladstone recordings. Either:

  1. Edison hired an actor to re-record Gladstone's lines
  2. Gladstone sent someone else to read for him

and Edison either:

  1. passed it off as Gladstone's voice anyways or
  2. collectors later falsified it or got confused.

Anyways, the following clip has been put forward as a more credible candidate for being an actual recording of octogenarian Gladstone (reading the same text, which if true throws doubt on the whole "he sent somebody else to read it" theory):

Actually, I can imagine this scenario:

  1. Gladstone records his voice
  2. Edison's unhappy with the quality, asks Gladstone to re-record it
  3. Gladstone sends a friend to tell Edison to sod off,
  4. Edison says, fuck it, let's loop it, who knows what Gladstone sounds like anyways

Clearly, Kate Beaton needs to draw this comic.

19th century bike tricksJun 15 2009

In 1899, Thomas Edison filmed some very contemporary looking bike tricks.

This seemed fake when I first watched it but here it is at The Library of Congress.

Early movie reviewsJun 05 2008

Russian writer Maxim Gorky wrote one of the first movie reviews in 1896 after seeing a collection of Lumiere films. Film/sound editor Walter Murch introduces the piece:

It is written on a completely clear slate, by someone who had not already been taught how to regard the cinema by a thousand other writers, and the newness of it all leaps from the page. What is remarkable is Gorky's prescience in the last two paragraphs, as he leaps ahead from his description of the first films to speculation on what directions the cinema might eventually take, toward sex and violence. How did he know?

The bulk of Gorky's short review concerns the absence of color and sound from the films, as if he's viewing shadows of reality.

Their smiles are lifeless, even though their movements are full of living energy and are so swift as to be almost imperceptible. Their laughter is soundless although you see the muscles contracting in their grey faces. Before you a life is surging, a life deprived of words and shorn of the living spectrum of colours -- the grey, the soundless, the bleak and dismal life.

In a collection of accounts of new technology, the NY Times has a pair of film reviews, the first from the Paris debut of the Lumiere films in 1895:

Photography has ceased to record immobility. It perpetuates the image of movement. When these gadgets are in the hands of the public, when anyone can photograph the ones who are dear to them, not just in their immobile form, but with movement, action, familiar gestures and the words out of their mouths, then death will no longer be absolute, final.

And this one from the projectionist of the first Lumiere in NYC:

You had to have lived these moments of collective exaltation, have attended these thrilling screenings in order to understand just how far the excitement of the crowd could go. With the flick of a switch, I plunge several thousand spectators into darkness. Each scene passes, accompanied by tempestuous applause; after the sixth scene, I return the hall to light. The audience is shaking. Cries ring out.

The Times also has a short article previewing the debut of Thomas Edison's vitascope1, which demonstrates the difficulty in describing this new technology to the public.

The vitascope projects upon a large area of canvas groups that appear to stand forth from the canvas, and move with great facility and agility, as though actuated by separate impulses. In this way the bare canvas before the audience becomes instantly a stage upon which living beings move about.

Vitascope advertisement

That sounds a bit boring but audiences loved it.

So enthusiastic was the appreciation of the crowd long before this exhibition was finished that vociferous cheering was heard. There were loud calls for Mr. Edison, but he made no response.

By 1898, the language of cinema was beginning to sort itself out, more or less, as this Times editorial notes.

All the resources of the word-builders see to have been exhausted in finding names for the simple but ingenious machine that throws moving pictures on a screen. The essential features in every device of this sort are the same -- a brilliant light before which a long band of minute photographs is rapidly drawn, and a lens to focus and distribute the rays properly. The arrangements for the manipulation of the light, the band, and the lens are numerous, but they vary only in the inconsequential details, and for all practical purposes the machines are identical. Some mysterious impulse, however, has impelled almost every purchaser of the apparatus to buy with it, or to invent for it, a distinctive name. Vitascope and biograph are most familiar here, with cinematograph coming next at a considerable distance. These hardly begin the list that might be formed from a careful study of the amusement advertisements in the papers of this and other countries. From such sources might be taken phantoscope, criterioscope, kinematograph, wondorscope, animatoscope, vitagraph, panoramograph, cosmoscope, anarithmoscope, katoptikum, magniscope, zoeoptrotrope, phantasmagoria projectoscope, variscope, cinograph, cinnomonograph, hypnoscope, centograph, and xograph. This is far from exhausting the supply. Electroscope exists, and so do cinagraphoscope, animaloscope, theatrograph, chronophotographoscope, motograph, rayoscope, motorscope, kinotiphone, thromotrope, phenakistoscope, venetrope, vitrescope, zinematograph, vitropticon, stinnetiscope, vivrescope, diaramiscope, corminograph, kineoptoscope, craboscope, vitaletiscope, cinematoscope, mutoscope, cinoscope, kinetograph, lobsterscope, and nobody knows how many more. Here, surely, is a curious development of the managerial mind.

Kinetoscope advertisement

It's difficult to read these accounts and not think about how we'll all sound in 100 years as we now attempt to explain the internet, mobile phones, the web, blogs, and the like.

[1] Edison didn't actually invent the vitascope. Thomas Armat sold the rights to his invention to The Edison Company on the condition that Edison could claim to have invented it.

The recent discovery of a phonautogram by &Mar 27 2008

The recent discovery of a phonautogram by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville may be the earliest recording of sound in the world, predating that of Thomas Edison by almost 20 years.

Scott is in many ways an unlikely hero of recorded sound. Born in Paris in 1817, he was a man of letters, not a scientist, who worked in the printing trade and as a librarian. He published a book on the history of shorthand, and evidently viewed sound recording as an extension of stenography. In a self-published memoir in 1878, he railed against Edison for "appropriating" his methods and misconstruing the purpose of recording technology. The goal, Scott argued, was not sound reproduction, but "writing speech, which is what the word phonograph means."

Here's an mp3 snippet of his 1860 recording.

Thunder! Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah,Nov 15 2007

Thunder! Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! Con Edison is cutting their last direct current line in NYC, ending 125 years of continuous service that started when Thomas Edison set up shop in 1882 and signaling the final triumph of alternating current in the AC/DC wars. (Lesson: Nikola Tesla always wins in the end.)

The last snip of Con Ed's direct current system will take place at 10 East 40th Street, near the Mid-Manhattan Library. That building, like the thousands of other direct current users that have been transitioned over the last several years, now has a converter installed on the premises that can take alternating electricity from the Con Ed power grid and adapt it on premises. Until now, Con Edison had been converting alternating to direct current for the customers who needed it -- old buildings on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side that used direct current for their elevators for example.

Tags related to Thomas Edison:
video audio NYC movies

kottke.org

Front page
About + contact
Site archives

Subscribe

Follow kottke.org on Twitter

Follow kottke.org on Tumblr

Like kottke.org on Facebook

Subscribe to the RSS feed

Advertisement

Ads by The Deck

Support kottke.org shop at Amazon

And more at Amazon.com

Looking for work?

More at We Work Remotely

Kottke @ Quarterly

Subscribe to Quarterly and get a real-life mailing from Jason every three months.

 

Enginehosting

Hosting provided EngineHosting