Boys' Life of Edison - W. H. Meadowcroft


Through his invention and introduction of the phonograph and of his apparatus for taking and exhibiting motion-pictures Edison has probably done more to interest and amuse the world than any other living man. These two forms of amusement have more audiences in a week than all the theaters in America in a year.

It is a curious fact that while instantaneous photography is necessary to produce motion pictures, the suggestion of producing them was made many years before the instantaneous photograph became possible.

One of the earliest efforts in this direction was made before Edison was born, and shown by a toy called the Zoetrope, or "Wheel of Life." A number of figures showing fractional parts of the motion of an object—such, for instance, as a boy skating—were boldly drawn in silhouette on a strip of paper. This paper was put inside an open cylinder having small openings around its circumference. The cylinder was mounted on a pivot, and, when revolved, the figures on the paper seemed to be in motion when viewed through the openings.

The success of this and similar toys, as well as of modern motion-pictures, depends upon a phenomenon known as the "persistence of vision." This means that if an object be presented to the vision for a moment and then withdrawn, the image of that object will remain impressed on the retina of the eye for a period of one-tenth to one-seventh of a second.

If, for instance, a bright light be moved rapidly up and down in front of the eye in a dark room it appears not as a single light, but as a line of fire, because there is not time for the eye to lose the image of the light between the rapid phases of its motion. For the same reason, if a number of pictures exactly alike were rapidly presented to the eye in succession it would seem as if a single picture were being viewed.

Thus, if a number of photographs, say at the rate of fifteen per second, be taken of a moving object, each successive photograph will show a fraction of the movements. Now if these photographs be thrown on a screen in the same order and at the same rate at which they were taken the movements of the object would apparently again take place, because the eye does not have time to lose the image of one fractional movement before the next follows.

One of the earliest suggestions of reproducing animate motion was made by a Frenchman named Ducos about 1864. He was followed by others, but they were all handicapped by the fact that dry-plates and sensitized film were entirely unknown, and the wet plates then used were entirely out of the question for the development of a practical commercial scheme.

The first serious attempt to secure photographs of objects in motion was made in 1878 by Edward Muybridge. At this time very rapid wet-plates were known. By arranging a line of cameras along a track and causing a horse in trotting past them to strike wires or strings attached to the shutters, the plates were exposed and a series of clear instantaneous photographs of the horse in motion was obtained.

Positive prints were made which were mounted in a modified form of Zoetrope and projected upon a screen. The horse in motion was thus reproduced, but, differing from the motion-pictures of to-day, always remained in the center of the screen in violent movement and making no progress.

Early in the eighties dry-plates were introduced, .and other experimenters took up the work, but they were handicapped by the fact that plates were heavy and only a limited number could be used. This difficulty may be easily understood when it is realized that a modern motion-picture play lasting fifteen minutes comprises about sixteen thousand separate and distinct photographs. The impossibility of manipulating this large number of glass plates to show one motion-picture play will be seen at once.

This was the condition of the art when Edison entered upon the work. He himself says, "In the year 1887 the idea occurred to me that it was possible to devise an instrument which should do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, and that by a combination of the two all motion and sound could be recorded and reproduced simultaneously."

Two very serious difficulties lay in the way, however—first, a sensitive surface of such form and weight as could be successively brought into position and exposed at a very high rate; and, secondly, the making of a camera capable of so taking the pictures. Edison proved equal to the occasion, and, after an immense amount of work and experiment, continuing over a long period of time, succeeded in producing apparatus that made modern motion-pictures possible.

In his earliest experiments a cylinder about the size of a phonograph record was used. It was coated with a highly sensitized surface, and microscopic photographs, arranged spirally, were taken upon it. Positive prints were made in the same way, and viewed through a magnifying-glass. Various forms of this apparatus were made, but all were open to serious objections, the chief trouble being with the photographic emulsion.

During this experimental period the kodak film was being developed by the Eastman Company. Edison recognized that in this product there lay the solution of that part of the problem. At first the film was not just what he required, but the Eastman Company after a time developed and produced the highly sensitized surface that Edison sought.

It then remained to devise a camera by means of which from twenty to forty pictures per second could be taken. Every user of a film camera can appreciate the difficulty of the problem. A long roll of film must pass steadily behind the lens. At every inch it must be stopped, the shutter opened for the exposure, and then closed again. The film must be advanced say an inch, and these operations repeated twenty to forty times a second throughout, perhaps, a thousand feet of film.

Who but an Edison would assume that such a device could be made, and with such exactness that each picture should coincide with the others? After much experiment, however, he finally accomplished it, and in the summer of 1889 the first modern motion-picture camera was made. From that day to this the Edison camera has been the accepted standard for securing pictures of objects in motion.

The earliest form of exhibiting apparatus was known as the kinetoscope. It was a machine in which a positive print from the negative roll of film obtained in the camera was exhibited directly to the eyes through a peep-hole. About 1895 the pictures were first shown through a modified form of magic lantern, and have so continued to this day. The industry has grown very rapidly, and at the present time (1911) the principal American manufacturers of motion-pictures are paying a royalty to Edison under his basic patents.

The pictures made in the earliest days of the art were simple and amusing, such as Fred Ott's sneeze, Carmencita dancing, Italians and their performing bears, fencing, trapeze stunts, horsemanship, blacksmithing, and so on. No attempt was made to portray a story or play. The "boys" at the laboratory laugh when they tell of a local bruiser who agreed to box a few rounds with "Jim" Corbett in front of the camera. When this local "sparring partner" came to face Corbett he was so paralyzed with terror he could hardly move.

These early pictures were made in the yard of Edison's laboratory at Orange, in a studio called the "Black Maria." It was made of wood, painted black inside and out, and could be swung around to face the sunlight, which was admitted by a movable part of the roof.

This is all very different in these modern days. The studios in which interior motion-pictures are made are expensive and pretentious affairs. An immense building of glass, with all the properties and stage settings of a regular theater, are required. The Bronx Park (New York) studio of the Edison Company cost at least one hundred thousand dollars. The company has a second studio in New York, but not so elaborate. Of course many of the plays are produced out of doors, in portions of the country suited to the story.

All the companies producing motion-pictures employ regular stock companies of actors and actresses, selected especially for their skill in pantomime, although, as may be suspected, in the actual taking of the pictures they are required to carry on an animated dialogue as if performing on the real stage. This adds to the smoothness and perfection of the performance.

Motion-picture plays are produced under the direction of skilled stage-managers who must be specially trained for this particular business. Their work is far from being easy, for an act in a picture-play must be exact and free from mistakes, and must take place in a very short time. For instance, an act in such a play may take less than five minutes to perform, but it must be carefully rehearsed for several weeks beforehand.

There is plenty of scope for patience and ingenuity in taking motion-picture plays. If trained children or animals are required they must be found or trained; and all the resources of trick and stop photography are called upon from time to time as the occasion requires.

Edison has always held to his idea of a combination of the phonograph and motion-picture. Some time ago he said, "I believe that in coming years, by my own work and that of Dickson, Muybridge, Marey, and others who will doubtless enter the field, grand opera can be given at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York without any material change from the original, and with artists and musicians long since dead."

This prediction has been partly fulfilled, for Edison has already shown successful talking motion-pictures, and at this writing the finishing work is being done on the apparatus for regularly placing them before the public.