Copyright © 1997 Enigma Productions Ltd.
. All rights reserved.
"An invention without any
Louis Lumiere, 1896
By the late 1880s, Thomas Alva Edison was universally hailed as the world's most celebrated inventor. In an
age of increasing technical specialization he was an engineer in the tradition of the early industrial revolution, a
creative and aggressive entrepreneur whose abilities seemed to encompass almost every branch of science and
technology. In other respects, too, he resembled some of those early ironmasters, with an ego that more than
matched his talent. He claimed sole credit for inventions as diverse as the electric lightbulb and the phonograph.
He insisted that he had played a part in the conception of scores of other devices that were beginning to
transform the daily lives of millions of people throughout the industrialized world, including the telephone, the
typewriter, and the lead-acid battery. Many of these claims were largely the product of his giant ego, and
minimized the efforts both of his own collaborators and of other inventors. Throughout his homeland and across
the world, he was honored as a self-made prophet of progress, the seer of a new industrial age.
Edison was the supreme representative of a group of gifted Americans who, from the early nineteenth century
on, had been responsible for a series of inventions that had come to define the new industrial era. In 1807 Robert
Fulton had launched the first commercially successful steamboat; in 1837 Samuel Morse had created the first
electric telegraph. For many Americans such technological innovation had become a measure of national stature.
As the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie put it: "The old nations of the earth creep on at a snail's pace; the Republic
thunders past with the rush of the express." For a nation founded on something as fragile as ideals rather than a
shared language or a deeprooted culture, the notion of progress as epitomized by men like Edison became a
means of providing the country with a tangible identity.
Now, as the end of the century loomed, Edison turned to a problem that seemed to have defeated an army of
inventors and scientists the world over: he set out to create a machine capable of projecting moving images.
Throughout the nineteenth century, an endless array of bizarre contraptions for showing moving pictures --such as
the Zoetrope and the Praxinoscope--had been registered with patent offices everywhere. But such devices were
little more than toys, and had been quickly tossed aside. The true solution seemed as far away as ever
None of these inventors, however, could lay claim to anything remotely resembling the reputation and influence
of Thomas Edison. His life story has been encrusted with myth, much of it carefully nurtured by the man himself,
but his remarkable journey from relatively humble beginnings in the backwoods of Ohio to his acknowledged
position as the most successful inventor of the age was real enough. Born in 1847, the son of a timber dealer of