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Thomas Edison Brings Innovation to Western Films

Extra, Extra! Bandits had the bright idea to rob a train and now have a posse in hot pursuit.

There is gunfire, people tied up, and even shot. A fireman is thrown from the moving train. Audiences cowered in fear, as the posse was in hot pursuit, cornering the bandits in a secluded wooded area and dealing out justice.  

The Great Train Robbery of 1903 was the first action & Western film in history.

TThis is the gist of the 1903, 12 minute epic drama, The Great Train Robbery,  filmed in Milltown, NJ. Film historians generally consider this Edison Manufacturing Studio’s film to be the first American action film and the first Western film. It could have been inspired by a 1900 train robbery perpetrated by the famous Butch Cassidy.

The Great Train Robbery surprised viewers so much that they reportedly had the audience ducking behind the seat in front of them, or even running from the theater. In a scene at the end of the film, the camera focuses on the bandit leader, played by Justus D. Barnes, who then empties his hog-legged .45 revolver directly into the camera. 

How’s this for realism?! The scene from The Great Train Robbery that scared people out of theaters, 1903.

However, that wasn’t the only wild part of this Western. The man behind the camera and directing was Edwin S. Porter, whose prolific career would eventually include over 250 films made him the most influential filmmaker in the United States. 

Porter was one of the first to use a variety of innovative film techniques in this $150 budgeted classic film including location shooting, minor camera moving, and pan shots. The jump-cuts that he used in editing the film were a new and sophisticated way of showing two events happening at the same time but in different places, making the plot more interesting than it once was.

Action and special effects made The Great Train Robbery thrilling for people in 1903.

BIf this film reminds you of your old Saturday morning Western skits, you wouldn’t be wrong. The innovation of the film set the tone for action-packed Western Movies for years to come. The iconic scene of gunshots making someone dance was born in this film. Furthermore, even media historian, James Chapman, believed that the straight at the camera gun shooting may have inspired the gun barrel sequence of the James Bond films!

Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.

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These Thomas Edison Movie Studios were The First In the World

These Thomas Edison Movie Studios were the First in the World

Where Budding Directors and Producers Got Their Start In Movies

Edison’s movie production activities ran from 1893 to 1918, during which Edison Studios made approximately 1200 movies, 54 feature length and the rest shorts. From New Jersey to New York, Edison Studios was home to some of the first movies filmed at a few historical locations:

  • The Black Maria, a studio Edison invented to film all day long in West Orange, NJ, 1893-1901. 
  • Edison’s Manhattan Studio in NYC a rooftop glass-enclosed studio that operated from 1901 to 1906.
  • Edison’s Bronx Studio in Bedford Park, NYC opened in 1907 and operated until 1918.

Here in these studios, America’s first directors began the development of the artistic craft and profession we know so well today. Each studio further refined and improved the movie-making process, which included introducing special effects and new techniques as well.

Edison’s Bronx Movie Studio, where the early film industry got its start.

The Black Maria is possibly the most notable of the Edison Studios, being the world’s first film production studio. The 1954 reproduction of the Black Maria below is housed at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange today.

A Reproduction of the Black Maria at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Using natural sunlight to film, the roof of the Black Maria was cranked open to admit the light; and the entire studio rotated on wheels 15 degrees every hour to track the sun. Edison once remarked about the often cramped conditions in which they made movies in this studio saying, “It was a ghastly affair, but it worked.”

Edison and his assistants would experiment with film and sound for hours in this building, pictured in the drawing below. Notice there is a phonograph used to record the sound. Edison was able to synchronize motion and sound as early as 1895, only a few years after opening the Black Maria. This would not be witnessed by mass Hollywood audiences until the late 1920s!

A drawing of a movie being made in the Black Maria, the first movie studio in the world.

Curious to see how they came out? Check out some of Edison’s Studios most notable films here.

We all know about Hollywood and what movies are selling out in the theaters today. However, did you know where it all began? To learn more about Thomas Edison and the film industry, check the blog again soon! 

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.
Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.


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Image Source: https://www.edisonfordwinterestates.org/what-to-see/laboratory/

Thomas Edison and the Rubber Men

-More than just Camping Buddies-

In previous blogs we talked about the camping buddies [a.k.a. The Vagabonds] Edison, Ford and Firestone. [See http://www.edisonmuckers.org/thomas-edison-and-the-vagabonds/ ; and  http://www.edisonmuckers.org/on-the-road-again/ ] But they did more than just enjoy the wilds and bucolic scenery.

During WWI, the rubber men realized a cut-off of the imported national rubber supply could seriously impact their businesses, and in 1927 set-up the Edison Botanic Research Company. They combined to discover serious alternate sources of rubber.

In 1928, a well-equipped lab was built on the site of the Edison Ft. Myers home, with research begun in early 1929, largely by Edison and a small staff.

The project was seed-funded with $25,000 contributions from each of the rubber men. Using nearby plots of land to experiment upon, Edison researched and cultivated a wide variety of possible plant species that could be used to develop the alternate rubber.

Today, we would recognize Edison’s cultivation efforts as an application of biomass technology [check out an earlier piece we did on biomass http://www.edisonmuckers.org/inventions-thomas-edison-would-love-biomass-conversion/]. There was talk among the rubber men of establishing biomass farms of promising plant species that might be grown in Florida and Georgia.

After testing more than 17,000 plant samples, Edison selected Goldenrod as the most suitable, developing a 12 foot tall strain of the common plant that yielded 12% latex [normally, the plant would only grow 3-4 feet tall with a 5% yield of latex].

The Giant Goldenrod Hybrid Plant  [a sample of which exists still at the West Orange Labs].

Edison worked at both the Ft. Myers lab and at his chemistry lab at West Orange up to his death in October 1931. Thereafter, his brother-in-law John Miller led the research operation; but in1936, Ford, Firestone, and Mina Edison dissolved the Edison Botanic Research Company as they could not make artificial rubber production economic.

According to the website https://www.edisonfordwinterestates.org/what-to-see/laboratory/  , in 2014, the American Chemical Society designated the Edison Botanic Research Laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. The lab is the only site in the state of Florida to receive this title and is a true national treasure!

Thomas Edison said, “The world owes nothing to any man, but every man owes something to the world.”

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.
Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.
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How Thomas Edison Napped His Way To Success

How Thomas Edison Napped His Way To Success

Over the last 100+ years, literary and technical professionals have talked about the diaphanous state between being awake and just drifting off to sleep….that gauzy, dream-like interval which experts call “hypnagogia.”

Creative icons like Thomas Edison, Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Walter Scott, Salvador Dalí, Edgar Allen Poe, John Kennedy, Nikola Tesla and Isaac Newton have credited hypnagogia and related states with enhancing their creativity. Even Aristotle talked about it.

People having a hypnagogic experience often report a floating sensation

Most people know that Edison was a cat napper, enjoying a nice, little “siesta” to recharge. Knowing about the hypnagogic state, Old Tom did what he did best, and started experimenting with it. His experiments went something like this:

  • Sit in a chair and get comfortable and quiet
  • Hold a steel ball in your hand
  • Start sleeping, relax your grip and drop the ball onto a steel surface or plate
  • Wake up and immediately record what you dreamed or experienced.

He claimed that these experiments, sometimes assisted by his staff, helped him develop some new ideas or work through existing problems.

Statue of Thomas Edison at The Edison & Ford Winter Estate in Fort Myers with a steel ball in his right hand

If you look closely at the above statue of Edison at the Fort Myers winter residence in Florida, you will notice the steel ball in his left hand to acknowledge his experimentation with hypnagogia!

Each of us have experienced these near sleep episodes but may not have understood what they meant in the creative context. Leg “jerking” as one falls asleep is one common manifestation of hypnagogia; as is perhaps hearing one’s name called, a doorbell ringing, or sudden loud sounds. Some folks may experience a kind of paralysis or even some visual effects like a shifting series of colors. We all get affected differently.

The great chemist Kekule` had a hypnagogic vision of a snake swallowing its tail to arrive at the chemical representation of a new hydrocarbon. That vision resulted in the chemical representation of the ringed molecule benzene.

Thomas Edison said, “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.” Hypnagogia and napping were one way that he brainstormed!

Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.
Left: Intel-Edison module now available world-wide for developers. Right: The “Tommy” award given by the Edison Innovation Foundation.
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