Monkeyshines No.2: The Patent Wars (1890)

4Monkeyshines_No2-DicksonIn mid-1889, Thomas Edison filed a patent with the United States Patent Office for a new invention. He would name it the Kinetoscope, a device for capturing and displaying motion pictures. After three years of testing, Edison’s invention was displayed for pubic consumption in 1891. Unsurprisingly, the Kinetoscope was a success, and another breakthrough was added to Edison’s impressive repertoire. On paper, Thomas Edison was hereafter known as the inventor of film.

Edison was inspired by European advancements in motion picture technology, as well as insights from photography experts. In 1888, Edison attended a lecture given by film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, whose famous series of galloping horse photographs introduced the concept of moving images. Muybridge had demonstrated his own motion picture device, the zoopraxiscope, but its reliance on manual effort by the participant made it more of a glorified flip-book. Edison theorized that moving images could be projected to an audience at high speeds with the assistance of an automated process, therefore eliminating the need for manual participation in the projection process. An early patent was filed in 1888, and lab technician William K.L. Dickson was assigned to the project. Edison himself acted as more of a supervisor, with most of the production and testing attributed to Dickson and his colleagues. Nonetheless, when the device was perfected, it was Thomas Edison that garnered the glory.

But as we know, Edison’s breakthrough came two years after Louis Le Prince developed the world’s first film in 1887. Despite this, Le Prince’s contribution was mostly forgotten, and Edison endured in popular culture as the father of film. There are several reasons why history favours Edison, primarily because the Kinetoscope was the first patented motion picture device in the United States. Le Prince applied for a patent in the U.S., but his request was denied (only to be given to Edison a few years later). Furthermore, Edison was already a near-mythical figure in the field of technological innovation, so his insights into filmmaking made for a better story. Finally, Le Prince never had the opportunity to contest Edison’s claim, since he died one year before the Kinetoscope’s debut.

Monkeyshines No.2 was another experiment devised by Edison’s labs in 1890. It’s similar to its predecessor, but the film quality has markedly improved. The films are getting better, and within a few short months the invention would be ready for prime time. But there’s something artificial here, almost cold. Filmed in the bowels of Edison’s labs, we see a worker standing in a pitch black room, cooly testing the capabilities of the camera. We understand filmmaking today as an artform, but it would be difficult to call this art. Rather, this is a technical document, a demo for a product in development. I can’t help but recall Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, a jovial celebration of a new innovation that displayed the emotions and culture of the era. You got the sense of a burgeoning auteur, an innovator whose true passion was art. Edison was not an artist, he was a businessman. Unfortunately, this business attitude would influence the remaining 19th century films, and continues to hold a domineering presence on the film industry to this day.



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