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Thomas Edison’s lasting legacy in film and innovation

With the pace of new technology, it’s a challenge to simply keep up with the next advancement, application or platform. Facebook has acquired 250 million users worldwide in five short years, with social networking competitor Twitter generating 3 million messages a day. Youtube is only 4 years old, but already boasts 290 million visits per day, and hulu.com, an online broadcast of television and movies, climbs the ranks with 29 million daily page views . From a technological and cultural perspective, these trends offer business, social and political imperatives and insights. But to look at this virulent paradigm shift historically shows the raw influence of American ingenuity.

112 years ago, on August 31st, 1897, Thomas Edison patented the kinetoscope: a peephole motion picture viewer. The kinetograph was the accompanying machine that would capture the first motion-pictures. A strip of 18mm film ran between two spools while a rapid shutter speed exposed the film at a constant rate. Holes punched on the side of the film allowed it to be drawn under a lens in the kinetoscope continuously, while intermittent flashes of light beneath the film obscured the change between images, giving the illusion of motion [1].

Of the kinetoscope, Edison said, “I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion ….” From this inspiration the came the first publicly consumed motion pictures. In a decade motion pictures transformed from novelty to industry.

In some sense the movies produced by Edison are more like the user-generated, real-life documentation of Youtube than like the feature-length film industry it initially begot. Called “Actualities”, the first films were short non-fiction news, locations and novelties. Now, video is indigenous in young generations as a form of communication: a video can challenge us, it can change our minds or explain a complex issue memorably. The marriage of video and Internet spreads cultures and ideas globally with the click of a button.

Advances in technology and skill have put cameras in the hands of millions, all but replaced film with digital images, and created tools to edit, digitally enhance and even digitally create worlds. This century of innovation and adaptation was kick-started by Edison’s ability to see beyond the tools of the time and to systematically invent the light bulb (his most famous invention), a sprocket chain drive that could would pull film or tape and insert them into the invention of the kinetoscope and kinetograph. His legacy is seen not just in the advancement of motion pictures, but also in the limitless imagination that the leaders of today, like Intel, Apple and General Electric, have adopted as their brand and foundation.