How Edison Revolutionized Entertainment


Today is the birthday of Thomas Edison (1847-1931).

What’s he got to do with show biz history? He is CENTRAL to show biz history!


First, his incandescent light bulb revolutionized the theatre in the 1880s, making stage lighting more efficient, easier to control and less dangerous (replacing gaslights and other crude technologies). The stage could be brighter now, and lighting could be manipulated to the extent that designers could employ it creatively – – for the first time, an art form unto itself.

Beyond this, electric street lights meant people could more safely go out at night, and this revolutionized popular culture, as for the first time in history there could be a “night life”. (Prior to this who was out at that hour? Prostitutes, burglars and Jack the Ripper). And think what electric lights did for advertising signage, the hallmark of Times Square and Broadway. Thus, Edison became responsible for Broadway’s nickname: “The Great White Way”.

But, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Even as his light bulb was drawing more people to the theatre, his new recording technologies would in a few years come to be the theatre’s principal competition.


The phonograph  (1877) meant people could stay at home and listen to music and other entertainment. They didn’t have to go out at all. (Interestingly though, at times, the medium could be useful advertising for live theatre…as when recordings of Enrico Caruso and Harry Lauder preceded those entertainers to American shores, building a fan base prior to their live bookings here. It still works that way to a certain extent).


But Edison’s motion picture technology (mid 1890s) would come to deal the most devastating blow to live theatre.

Many people today don’t realize this, but Edison himself was in the movie making business during the early years. Since he owned and controlled the technology, as much as possible he wanted the profits to be derived from generating the content as well. His studios, which operated from 1894 through 1918 turned out over a thousand movies (all but 50 or so of them were what we now call shorts.). Notable Edison films included May Irwin in The Kiss (1896, famous for including the first onscreen smooch), the first adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1910), the first adaptation of Frankenstein (1910), and the groundbreaking films of Edwin S. Porter, such as The Great Train Robbery (1903), The Life of an American Fireman (1903), and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1906).

In 1908, Edison and most of the major players in the film industry attempted to form a combine that would shut out new competition in the growing movie market, by patenting the technology and not allowing anyone else use it. Edison’s co-conspirators in the Motion Picture Patents Company (the so -called Edison Trust) included Biograph, Essanay, Kalem, Lubin, Selig, Vitagraph, George Kleine, and the American arms of Pathe and Melies.

You will note that, apart from the Paris-based Pathe, all of these horse-and-buggy concerns are now defunct. Who were the Independents whom the combine wanted to shut out? Among others, oh, Carl Laemmle (who founded Universal), Harry Aitken (who founded Mutual and Triangle film corporations, releasing movies by D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, Thomas Ince, etc), and Adolph Zukor (founder of Famous Players, which became Paramount). So it is obvious which way things went. In 1915 the courts ruled against the Trust. By 1918, Edison was out of the picture making business, and the day of what would become the major Hollywood studios (the ones which are still with us) had begun.

But since the entire country was using Edison’s patented method of electrical distribution, along with his light bulbs (and a thousand other patents for that matter) he wasn’t exactly hurting.

And now, here is the Edison company’s version of Frankenstein — a cautionary tale for inventors!

For more on early film industry don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


To find out more about the popular theatreconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 


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