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TRANSCRIPT: Podcast: Ryan Lintelman traces the roots of America’s motion picture industry

In the 1880s, Thomas Edison and fellow inventors in West Orange, New Jersey, caused the American film industry to boom.

A production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Written and audio production by Matt Ringelstetter. Art Molella, executive producer. Amanda Murray, podcast program manager. Joyce Bedi, webmaster. Ryan Lintelman was interviewed by Matt Ringelstetter at the National Museum of American History, January 28, 2010. Podcast released February 25, 2010. Music from the Free Music Archive , Artist: Latche Swing, Song: “Hungaria.”

Matt Ringelstetter: Greetings from the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center. In this Inventive Voices podcast, we’ll look for the origins of the American motion picture industry, the topic that most of our listeners might associate with the glitz, glamour, and sunshine of Southern California. However, this particular place of invention actually has its roots far from the Sunset Strip in a place called West Orange, New Jersey. Why New Jersey, you ask? Well, let’s find out. Here to discuss the rise of the American film industry and its eventual move to Hollywood is Ryan Lintelman, a research specialist in the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History. Ryan, welcome to the show.

Ryan Lintelman: Thanks.  

Matt: Now, a lot of people might be surprised when they first hear that the birthplace of the American film industry prior to its move to Hollywood was in New Jersey, and we’ll get to that a bit later. But what they wouldn’t be surprised about is that the name Thomas Edison is definitely involved in the start of the film industry. What laid the groundwork for Edison’s interest in film during the 1880s?

Ryan: Well, Thomas Edison was, by the 1880s, one of the most famous men in America for his embodying the spirit of progress. That kind of shaped American history up to that point. He seemed to be an unstoppable creative genius, and eventually, by the end of his life, held over a thousand patents in his name. His inventions were rapidly changing American life at the time. His first really transformative invention was the phonograph, which was introduced in 1877. He began his career working for telegraph companies, so he was always interested in the technology of communications and improving communications. When he invented the foil and then later the wax photograph, for the first time it was possible to record sound and then bring it back to life at a later time. Newspapers at the time were filled with these glowing predictions of long-dead celebrities and politicians and loved ones speaking into the future. Businesses, too, were able to utilize the phonograph to record business transactions, and the entertainment industry itself changed from sheet music to recording sound. Before, sheet music had been the primary thing that the entertainment industry was doing, but now they are able to actually record performers, recording their sound.  

Edison used the profits from this enormously successful product to build the world’s first modern research and development lab at Menlo Park, New Jersey. New Jersey for Edison was ideal because he could buy large plots of undeveloped land and expand his labs while he still remained close to the population centers and the markets and the investors in New York and Philadelphia and Washington, which were all nearby. At Menlo Park, he and his staff perfected the first commercially viable incandescent lightbulb. Then people said Edison had conquered the dark; he made the world brighter, safer, and more productive. Again, it was another amazingly transformative invention in terms of American history and American technological history, industrial history, everything.  

By the 1880s Edison became known as “the Wizard of Menlo Park” because these inventions that he was coming up with were so transformative that it was as if magic was involved. “The Wizard of Menlo Park”—he was caricatured in newspaper cartoons and things like that. He was definitely one of the most famous men in the world—at least the most famous inventor in the world at the time. He was so famous that he was personally attracting the world’s greatest talent to Menlo Park to work in his lab. W. K. L. Dickson, for instance, the man who was later responsible for Edison’s motion picture innovations. He brought his entire family from France to New Jersey in 1883 just to show up at Edison’s door and ask for work. It’s pretty amazing.

Matt: Was that common for Edison to have these guys show up?

Ryan: Oh yeah, he got that all the time.

Matt: That’s great.

Ryan: People knock on the door in the middle of the night. It’s just pretty spectacular, and this is the guy who I’ll talk about later. He was no chump off the street; he was a highly trained electrical mechanical engineer, and for him to make that journey really speaks to Edison’s fame in a worldwide context. Historians now credit Thomas Edison with his mastery of modern public relations and industrial management as much as any inventions that he did. He was a genius at promoting himself and developed an amazing ability to monetize and market the ideas that he developed at Menlo Park. While he did create personally a number of technological innovations—and then at his lab, his staff as well—his greatest successes were in translating inventions into consumer products, which is something that had a lasting influence. He then carefully managed his share of the intellectual property that he developed through legal action and everything else. His labs produced one amazing innovation after another due to this talented workforce that he was able to bring to him. He called these people who worked for him “muckers” because they worked long hours for just average laborers’ wages. They were highly skilled people who came to Edison’s lab to work with this famous man and to launch their careers there. When the operation then outgrew Menlo Park because he was having such success, he built a new, state-of-the-art facility at West Orange, New Jersey.  

Matt: This is where the film aspect of his innovation started to take place.

Ryan: Right. Among other things, this is the film center, so this is where the first films that were made in America were done. It was designed as a model research and development lab. It’s sort of like an 1880s Silicon Valley. This was the place where innovation was happening in America. This facility had a machine shop, a metallurgy building, chemistry lab, woodworking shop, phonograph and photograph department, a library, and then there was lots of room for continued expansion as well. He was really thinking ahead of his current projects to making this a center for innovation.

Matt: He basically had all the resources right at his hands to create whatever kind of came to mind in that way?

Ryan: Exactly. One of the main draws for these young engineers who were being drawn to Edison’s lab was his legendary stockroom at his lab. He bragged that it contained “eight thousand kinds of chemicals, every kind of screw made, every size of needle, every kind of cord or wire, hair of humans, horses, hogs, cows, rabbits, goats, minks, camels,”  silk in every texture, cocoons, various kinds of hooves, sharks’ teeth, deer horns, tortoiseshell, quartz, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, a peacock’s tail, amber, rubber, all ores, and it goes on and on and on.  

Matt: It sounds like it contained a giant ego as well.

Ryan: Right. Exactly. He would brag about this, and not only for his own ego’s sake, but again, to draw these people to him and to prove to the world that what he was doing was really something. Magically, behind closed doors, he wasn’t just taking something that he had heard in a trade journal and converting it into a product, but actually using the world’s treasures to create something new. He knew from his experience with a lightbulb, too, that every material on earth might be necessary to come to the next brilliant conclusion, the next breakthrough. So he was dedicated to helping his workers and providing them with the supplies they needed. His library, too, was world-class. He tasked his employees with getting the latest trade and scientific literature from around the world to stay up-to-date. This often allowed him to take an idea and develop it again into a new product with great speed.  

His lab also became a draw for other scientists and engineers from around the world. Not even those who were working with him, but others. Historians think, for instance, that Edison’s interest in motion pictures first developed when the photographer Eadweard Muybridge came to his lab at West Orange in 1888. Muybridge was famous for photographing horses in motion; he was dedicated to the photography of motion. He was basically taking a series of photos of animals in motion with a bank of cameras. These were motion pictures but he never had any sort of way of replaying these. What he was doing was recording the motion of everyday life without any means of exhibition. Muybridge’s interest was scientific, and Edison took this idea and started to develop it in his mind into a commercial idea for entertainment and exhibition.

Matt: He was thinking entertainment from the beginning?

Ryan: He was, yeah.

Matt: Possibly from his phonograph experiences. A way to market it.

Ryan: Absolutely. The phonograph was actually a product that he leased. He would lease phonograph listeners at the beginning to people to have in public places where you could use a nickel to hear a phonograph record. Immediately Edison’s mind started working on this idea of, “Well, if we’re recording motion, isn’t there some way to replay it? Can’t we do it in the same way that I do the phonograph?” He developed this phrase at the time—he filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office at the time—to do what the phonograph does for the ear.   He’s thinking here, he didn’t even have an invention yet, he didn’t have an idea of an invention except for that idea that he wanted to somehow record and reproduce images the way that he had done sound with the phonograph.  

Matt: So this is the 1880s.That was probably a fairly lofty goal?

Ryan: Oh, it’s revolutionary. Luckily for Edison he had a very talented employee, one in particular who was able to convert this idea into something marketable, and that was W. K. L. Dickson.  

Matt: He came to work for him from France. And what was he doing at this West Orange lab that was so innovative, and what contributed to this industry?

Ryan: Edison was really lucky that this young man showed up at his door knocking in the night because Dickson proved to be really spectacular. He was exactly the kind of mechanical genius you’d imagine when you think of the 19th-century inventor toiling alone in his laboratory at night. He was totally dedicated to his work and he was wonderfully skilled with working with machines, electricity, and photography most of all. Photography was something at the time that required a lot of training and skill. These are the days before point-and-shoot cameras. Edison hired Dickson and used his talents for a number of projects but also photography as well. Dickson became the lab’s official photographer. A lot of the photographs you see of Edison and his lab from the 1880s were taken by Dickson, which is interesting.  

This skill behind the camera recommended him for Edison’s newest interest in the 1880s, the motion picture. He started a secret project actually to develop the motion picture, and put Dickson in charge of it, in charge of doing for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear.  There were a number of technological hurdles to overcome. At this time, when photographers were using heavy wooden cameras with bellows to capture images on glass plates, these are not media that lend themselves to motion pictures where you need some kind of photographic material that can run through a camera at a quick speed to record sixteen frames per second, is what you need for the eye to register motion the way that motion pictures work. The existing technology just wouldn’t work.  

Edison’s original idea was to make microscopic photos in a series on the side of a phonographic cylinder and you’d eventually view these tiny photographs through what was essentially a microscope. Dickson tried this idea for a few years and wanted to appease his boss but he knew from the beginning it was never going to work. The photos were too small. They were like the size of the head of a pin, and they were dimly lit so it made them blurry, and it was just never going to work on a commercial basis.  

Luckily, at almost the same time, George Eastman, the man who founded the Kodak Company, was introducing photographic film. This was a thin, transparent material that was flexible and durable enough to stand up to the pressures of going through a camera as quickly as it needed to. Dickson ordered one of the first shipments of the film that was made in the United States and got to work with that trying to put it to his purposes. He was the first one to actually cut the film into 35-mm strips to put holes—perforated edges—on the side so that it could run through a camera and be advanced through there. He also invented the first motion picture camera, the kinetograph. The name of that comes from the Greek “kineto” which means “motion,” and “graph” is a record or a drawing of motion.  

At West Orange, Dickson began to make the first motion pictures in 1889 and 1890, which is earlier then some people think. At the beginning, they were just sort of subjects showing Edison employees goofing off: what you’d expect for the first films to be. The first film that historians consider to be the first film made in America is called Monkey Shines and it just shows an Edison employee flexing and showing off, trying to show off his muscles.  

Once this concept was proven, Edison wanted Dickson to make films to exhibit. He ordered the construction of the Black Maria, which is the first movie studio in the world. It was a small, black building that was actually built on a turntable, a giant turntable, with a hinged roof. All of this was designed to allow maximum sunlight hitting the actors on the stage, because even though the film had been invented for the high-speed photography that was necessary for films, you still need the maximum light hitting the faces of the actors.

Matt: So this was built at the West Orange facility?

Ryan: Yeah. This was on the grounds of the West Orange facility. Again, Edison was looking ahead of his time to know that they would need some room for expansion, so they were able to build this building on this giant turntable; everything that was necessary for that was on the West Orange grounds. These first films they made for audiences were just short, simple subjects like women dancing or body builders flexing or a man sneezing or a famous couple kissing, and these early films have been called “the cinema of attractions” because they were shown as sort of these amazing glimpses of new technology rather then narrative plays on film.  

The way that these first films were shown to audiences wasn’t projected on a screen, actually, but through a cabinet peep show sort of device, just as Edison had done, as I mentioned with the phonograph. He thought this was the way to go, to lease these cabinet viewers out. They were called “Kinetoscopes.” What would happen is the film was run through these Kinetoscopes and you would put in a nickel, being the viewer, and bend over and look through a lens to see this film running through. It was a very small image, about thirty seconds long, and it cost a nickel, but by the end of the 1890s movies had become a huge success. They were all over the country, and Edison and a growing number of competitors were making a lot of money and being successful by projecting these films onto screens at vaudeville theaters. That proved to be the more profitable idea.

Matt: Now, stepping back to the innovation side of this, of course Edison and his employees weren’t the only people blazing the trail when it came to the film industry. What were some of the efforts taking place in Europe? Were European inventors affected at all by Edison’s inventions?

Ryan: Yeah. Obviously the success of his inventions and novelty of the medium would breed competition right away. As with any invention, Edison wasn’t working alone. There were many people around the world who were working on motion pictures at the same time, and Edison was the most successful at immediately marketing his invention. Others obviously started competing as soon as he found success. Even W. K. L. Dickson, who felt that Edison had taken undue advantage of his work, left to found his own motion picture company, which is called American Mutoscope and Biograph. Edison fiercely defended his motion picture patents in court and happened to think narrowly about the technology, therefore missing out in some new inventions.  

This is where competitors were able to pick up the slack. First of all, like I mentioned, like his phonograph concession, he tried this movie machine idea of looking through these viewers into the projection. People were able to manufacture projectors and films for them outside of Edison’s control and therefore were making money opening up that market before he was able to get to it. In Europe, they are also, as you mentioned—there were inventors that had been working on motion picture technology, and their filmmakers were growing more experimental in these early days. They realized that audiences wanted to see more than just the everyday life that was sometimes depicted in Edison’s films. They started filming exotic scenes of faraway places and battles, films of the Pope and leaders from around Europe.  

Also, trick films that used editing and early special effects to really shock audiences. The Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès made longer, very visually interesting films that were quickly copied by Edison and his American counterparts once they came back. One that’s very famous from the early 1900s is called A Trip to the Moon, which was the first to really use editing and special effects in a way to tell a science fiction story.

Matt: Jules Verne story.

Ryan: Right.  

Matt: I think there is a famous film, and it’s attributed to Edison, or it’s the Edison version that most people know about.

Ryan: Right. Edison actually saw its first American screening and immediately ordered a copy to be made by his own studio. So by the time Georges Méliès came over from France to start exhibiting his film in America where it had such acclaim and success in Europe, he found that it was already playing in every theater in the United States. It was Edison’s copy and he [Méliès] went almost bankrupt because he spent so much producing for the American market and then found out it was already covered.

Matt: So today, here in America and all over the world, the name Hollywood is synonymous with the film industry. Like I said earlier a lot of people probably would be surprised to hear that the birthplace of this industry was actually on the East Coast, and specifically in New Jersey. That’s quite a contrast in my opinion to the glitz and glamour and sun of Hollywood. Can you talk a little bit about “Why New Jersey?” and also the move westward?

Ryan: Most people can’t think of a place farther from Hollywood than New Jersey, right?  

Matt: Possibly.

Ryan: That very industrialized culture that exists in New Jersey, and the transportation networks that are there, is the reason that it’s where the film industry began. That’s the reason Edison’s laboratories were there. Near the industry, near the city and urban centers, near the places where they could receive, by either railroads or roads or waterways, the raw materials they needed and then to ship out the films as well. The American film industry was concentrated in that New Jersey, New York area from the 1890s until the 1920s. That’s when Hollywood became the movie capital of the world. Prior to that time, the most important factors were to be close to those manufacturing centers and investors in the markets.  

By the 1910s, film producers were becoming more intense; they wanted to film longer and more interesting films in a variety of locations. At the same time, film equipment was becoming lighter and more portable. Directors began to do location shoots. Filming still required lots of sunlight at the time to record high-speed motion picture film, but instead of trying to replicate a mountain scene for a western on top of a building in New York, where many studios were located in the 1900s, why not go to the mountains instead? Some famous films were made in the hills of New Jersey, including The Perils of Pauline series, which is a famous silent movie series, but more exciting series like westerns and war films require changes of scenery. Film companies began scouting for locations with high, year-round sunlight and a variety of landscapes. They found Southern California to be the perfect location, because you had mountains, deserts, valleys, the ocean, forests, beautiful sunsets—what else did you need?  

Legendary Biograph director D. W. Griffith actually made the first film in Hollywood, and it was titled In Old California, and he made that in the Hollywood area in 1910. Hollywood at the time was sort of just a rural village. There was a failed residential development there that had been called Hollywoodland, and that’s where the sign came from. It was just this town outside of Los Angeles, but after this first film was made and film companies began to see the possibilities for this location, other film companies began moving west. By the 1920s already the majority of American films were being produced in the Hollywood area. It was sort of a self-perpetuating model industrial town in that once one company set up shop and distributors of materials and the films they were producing moved to town as well, why wouldn’t all other film companies move out there and take advantage of that same sunlight and natural scenery that everybody else had?  

By the 1920s the movie stars moved out there, too, and then it becomes this model town of glamour and dreams.

Matt: I’d like to thank Ryan for taking the time to speak to us about the origins of this iconic American industry. It’s interesting to hear about how places of invention can develop due to the people and resources that are available. Also, how the actual place of invention can relocate over time.  

If you’d like to let us know what you thought of this episode, or any in the series, drop us a line at lemcen@si.edu. You can write a review on our iTunes page or even take the anonymous survey found at invention.smithsonian.org/video. For the Smithsonian Lemelson Center and Inventive Voices, this is Matt Ringelstetter. Tune in again next month for more interesting stories, people, and places in the world of invention and innovation.  

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