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The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905.

[Detail] The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905

The films in Inventing Entertainment document life during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries with footage of events such as the Spanish-American War, the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, and the funeral of President William McKinley. Unlike contemporary feature-length films, these short pieces were often exhibited as a series within a vaudeville program. Special Presentations in the collection chronicle Thomas Edison's life and his involvement in the phonograph and motion picture industries. The presentations also provide historical context for the development of the popular twentieth-century medium of narrative films.

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Thomas Edison

Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was a prolific inventor and successful businessman who dramatically influenced modern life in the twentieth century. This collection's Special Presentations, magazine articles, and audio and video recordings provide information about Edison's personal life and his commercial success.

Edison earned the first of 1,093 patents in 1869 for an electric vote recorder. The Special Presentation, "The Life of Thomas Edison," explains that when politicians were reluctant to use the machine, "he decided that in the future he would not waste time inventing things that no one wanted." This emphasis on function and profit is reflected in the inventor's comments in "Edison Views the World at Seventy," (one of two 1917 interviews available in this collection), when he explains his recent work in chemistry:

For most of my life I refused to work at any problem unless its solution seemed to be capable of being put to commercial use . . . . I have always been more interested in chemistry than in physics, but I got into electricity and stuck there for a long time . . . . Oddly enough it was the war that gave me the chance I had been looking for to putter with chemicals. I mean that the cutting off of our supplies made it advantageous to find out how to manufacture [chemicals] in this country. (page 2)

  • Which of Edison's inventions do you think were most important? Why?
  • Why do you think that Edison was such a successful businessman?
  • What does Edison's career suggest about the factors that influence invention? What is the impact of the public's reaction, the inventor's genius and interests, and the inventor's financial needs?

Another side of Edison is revealed in the 1919 recording, Let Us Not Forget. In this rare public speech, the inventor comments on the national sacrifices made during World War I, addresses the end of the conflict, and celebrates national courage: "The word, American, has a new meaning in Europe . . . We are proud of the North Americans who risked their lives for the liberty of the world."

  • What contributions do you think that Edison made to his country?
  • How might Edison have viewed his relationship to his country?
  • Why do you think that Edison recorded the address, Let Us Not Forget?

Three years later, Edison allowed the motion picture camera to focus on its inventor in the six-part series, A Day with Thomas A. Edison. This documentary recorded the 74-year-old Edison's collaborations with his staff, conversations with industrial leaders, and supervision of the factory's production line. The majority of the film (parts 3, 4, and 5) chronicles Edison's trip to the incandescent light bulb factory and details its manufacturing process.

  • Why do you think that Edison allowed cameras to document his activities in A Day with Thomas A. Edison?
  • Why do you think that the film devoted so much time to the manufacturing of light bulbs?
  • How do you think that the public might have perceived Edison?
  • What do his public appearances (in the interviews, recording, and film) imply about Edison's status as a private businessman and a public figure?
  • Do you think that there are any contemporary businessmen or inventors who rival Edison and his contribution to modern life? If so, then who? If not, then why?