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Patenting the Motion Picture camera – on this day in 1891. “Edison’s” – not Edison’s.

August 24, 2017


Nobody, of course, would say that Thomas Edison invented the motion picture.  There were quite an impressive variety of people who invented elements of the phenomenon that the Lumière Brothers managed to assemble late in 1895 in the form of an actual cinema performance. Along with Muybridge and Friese-Greene, there’s the mysterious Louis le Prince who made two very very short films in Leeds in 1888 before getting on a train in Dijon and disappearing forever before anyone could greet him in Paris.  In terms of “Edison’s Kinetoscope”, much of the work involved in its development was done by William Kennedy Dickson, and Dickson himself had others being inventive under him.

Edison of course owned a factory full of inventors.  This, in itself, does not make Edison a fraud.  Edison was a very inventive man who intervened very personally in many of the projects that his factory was working on.  He did like to have his name on lots and lots of patents however, and certainly wasn’t keen on his underlings getting too much recognition for their work, as both Tesla and Dickson would testify.  Edison owned the factory, so he owned the patents.  They were “Edison” inventions.

But perhaps this particular Edison invention – the “kinetoscope” – is a good example of a complex development involving a great many people that gets subsumed into a kind of authorial function.   There’s a very annoying episode of The Simpsons in which Homer feels spurred on by the example of Edison to try to invent things in his basement.  His consequent failure and misery could have been alleviated by someone pointing out that Edison did not work alone in a basement but had a factory-laboratory full of people working for him.   The notion of the patent as Edison used (and abused?) it enforces the notion that whoever owns the means of production owns the product.  Labour is occluded.

When we talk of Edison “inventing” cinema, it’s a bit like saying that Khufu built the Great Pyramid, even though it’s extremely unlikely that the Pharaoh dragged a single stone.

So I think of anniversaries like this as a good opportunity to pause and reflect on how cults of “invention” serve to alienate labour and to concentrate inventive effort in the hands of capital.

I suppose I only really bother to get annoyed about Edison when I hear him being touted as an inspirational role model that anybody can emulate.  I only get shirty about this very enterprising and inventive individual when it is suggested that anyone with big dreams and a workbench can do what he did “if they truly believe… blah blah blah.”  This kind of motivational malarkey ends up being deeply demotivational.  It’s setting people up for failure as well as offering a bizarre and mendacious fallacy of invention itself as an asocial individualised endeavour.

Incidentally, Edison always saw the kinetoscope as a sort of drawing room solo entertainment and was never interesting in projecting this stuff onto a big screen. There’s a whole separate and overlapping story involving how to imagine cinematic audience… which I think dates back to the eighteenth-century and slow victory of actor managers over rioting audiences.

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