Film History Essentials: Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory (1897)

What it’s about:

Thomas Alva Edison, the great inventor himself, putters around in his laboratory, clad in a white lab coat, pouring and mixing chemicals.

Why it’s essential:

It seems surprising that Edison waited some six years after the successful development of motion pictures before appearing even once before the camera himself. Auguste Lumière appeared in several of the brothers’ first films, and Georges Méliès was generally the star of most of his films. William Dickson was in one of the first motion pictures to greet audiences. Even Eadward Muybridge used himself as a subject in his motion photography studies. The motion picture pioneers who didn’t appear in front of the camera, men like Louis Le Prince, Étienne-Jules Marey, and Louis Lumière, were invariably behind the camera instead.

The exception is Edison, a testament to his lack of involvement, and lack of interest, in the development of the technology apart from its connection to two things: His business interests, and his reputation as the greatest American inventor. Interviews and articles from the time of the development and introduction of the kinetoscope suggest that Edison took great pleasure in the gushing praise that surrounded the new “miracle” that he was credited with bringing into the world.

He reveled in that acclaim again in 1896, when he introduced Thomas Armat’s Phantoscope as his own Vitascope. But the field of film projection was soon crowded with competitors, the most successful of which benefited from the knowledge and skills of his ex-employee, William Dickson. Charles Musser suggests that, by 1897, Edison’s role in motion pictures “was no longer hailed in newspaper publicity and only rarely mentioned in amusement advertisements” and that appearing on film “reassert[ed] his presence in a new way (on the screen)” and “reinscribe[d] the inventor into the cinema process.”

The title, of course, is a lie. The catalog listing for the film doubles down on the falsehood, asserting that the film is “remarkable” in part because: “The scene is an actual one, showing Mr. Edison in working dress engaged in an interesting chemical experiment in his great Laboratory.” The glimpse of Edison “at work” was actually shot inside of the Black Maria, though to be fair, it likely wouldn’t have been possible to light Edison’s actual lab sufficiently to film inside of it. The deception is a fairly innocent one, particularly when placed next to the massive falsehood that was Edison’s claims of having invented the movies.

Edison once said something very telling when describing his philosophy:

Everything on earth depends on will. I never had an idea in my life. I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment — I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born; everything comes from the outside. The industrious one coaxes it from the environment; the drone lets it lie there while he goes off to the baseball game. The ‘genius’ hangs around his laboratory day and night. If anything happens he’s there to catch it; if he wasn’t, it might happen just the same, only it would never be his.

Ideas, he seems to be saying, don’t belong to anyone but the person who steps in with the will and the drive to take possession of them. It’s hard to know how much self-awareness he said this with, but it certainly explains why he never balked at putting his name on other people’s work, as well as his own.

Why you should see it:

Regardless of any artificiality in the staging of this scene, there is something genuinely remarkable about seeing an actual motion picture featuring Thomas Edison, perhaps the most famous figure in the history of American innnovation. He is fifty years old in this film, and he seems to be a very natural subject. You would almost believe he is totally unaware that the camera is there, and that he actually is totally absorbed in some fascinating experiment. Chemistry had famously been a passion of Edison’s from childhood, so it would likely have been an obvious choice for a demonstration of the great inventor at work, even if it were not such an easy way to visually represent that someone is “doing science.”


~ by Jared on March 5, 2023.

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