Tag Archives: film

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.

This 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 one the first Western films. 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.


Edison Invents the Movie Industry

Characteristic of Edison’s major innovations, like the phonograph, the light bulb / electric utility industry, and R&D labs….the great inventor also created the individual components and the industry itself. It was no different with his motion picture innovations. His movies changed the world and how we see ourselves.

Edison’s initial work in motion pictures (1888-89) actually resembled his phonograph, with pictures arranged on a cylinder. These first motion pictures were rather crude, and hard to focus. Working with trusted associate and mucker K. L. Dickson, and using George Eastman’s improved 35 mm celluloid film, which was cut into continuous strips and perforated along the edges, the film was moved by sprockets in a stop-and-go motion behind the shutter.

Edison Invents the Motion Picture

In Edison’s movie studio, technically nicknamed “The Black Maria” (1893), Edison and his staff filmed short movies for later viewing in store-front movie parlors (1894). It’s been said that Edison’s motion pictures did for the eyes what his phonograph did for the ears. In all, about seventy-five, 20 second long, motion pictures were made in Edison’s studio. The first films shot at the Black Maria included magic shows, plays, vaudeville shows involving dancers and strongmen, cowboys, boxing matches, cockfights, and scantily clad women. When Edison combined his movie camera with Thomas Armat’s projector (1896), film-making took a great leap forward, and soon moved into larger theaters as a major new form of popular entertainment. When asked to discuss his movie-making activities in his cramped Black Maria, Edison quipped…..”It was a ghastly affair, but we managed to make pictures there.”

Edison Invents the Motion Picture


Edison Invents the Motion Picture

After 1895, Edison motion pictures tended to center on non-fictional subjects, shot on location. Famous show people of the day including Buffalo Bill, gunslinger Annie Oakley, and strongman Eugene Sandow were filmed by Edison’s team. Smaller and more portable cameras were making it possible to film on site, and capture “actuality” themes like parades, special events, military exercises. It was at this time that the landmark western, “The Great Train Robbery” was filmed in a number of locations in northern, NJ. This helped boost NJ as a film making area and inspired the film careers of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Pearl White, and Harold Lloyd who all performed and lived in Fort Lee. The public was hungry for sporting events and boxing matches and this soon propelled the industry in new and innovative ways. After World War I the movie industry moved west to Hollywood.

In 1927, the year of the establishment of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the first honorary Oscar went to Thomas Edison, signed by over 40 Hollywood greats of the time, including Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Sarah Bernhardt. Famed actors Mickey Rooney [Young Tom Edison, March-1940] and Spencer Tracy [Edison, the Man, May-1940] both portrayed Edison on the big screen. Spencer Tracy had planned to visit Mrs. Edison at Edison’s Glenmont home in Llewellyn Park, West Orange, NJ upon the opening of his Edison film at a theater in nearby Orange, NJ; but a terrible rainstorm and inclement weather prevented the meeting.

Today, the film and TV movie industry employs about 2.4 million people, and contributes about $180 billion annually to the national economy. You can see movies in theaters, on the Internet, your TV, on iPads, computers, laptops, smart phones and many other electronic devices, just about everywhere bringing the world together. Thank you Mr. Edison!

Thomas Edison on Time Magazine

Editor’s Deep Dive into Edison’s First Movies:

“I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try and invent it.”

Time ® is a registered trademark of Time Inc.