Thomas Edison's Phonograph CompaniesThe phonograph was initially marketed as a business dictation machine. Entrepreneur Jesse H. Lippincott acquired control of most of the phonograph companies, including Edison's, and set up the North American Phonograph Co. in 1888. The business did not prove profitable, and when Lippincott fell ill, Edison took over the management.
In 1894, the North American Phonograph Co. went into bankruptcy, a move which allowed Edison to buy back the rights to his invention. In 1896, Edison started the National Phonograph Co. with the intent of making phonographs for home amusement. Over the years, Edison made improvements to the phonograph and to the cylinders which were played on them, the early ones being made of wax. Edison introduced an unbreakable cylinder record, named the Blue Amberol, at roughly the same time he entered the disc phonograph market in 1912.
The introduction of an Edison disc was in reaction to the overwhelming popularity of discs on the market in contrast to cylinders. Touted as being superior to the competition's records, the Edison discs were designed to be played only on Edison phonographs, and were cut laterally as opposed to vertically. The success of the Edison phonograph business, though, was always hampered by the company's reputation of choosing lower-quality recording acts. In the 1920s, competition from radio caused business to sour, and the Edison disc business ceased production in 1929.
Other Ventures: Ore-milling and CementAnother Edison interest was an ore-milling process that would extract various metals from ore. In 1881, he formed the Edison Ore-Milling Co., but the venture proved fruitless as there was no market for it. In 1887, he returned to the project, thinking that his process could help the mostly depleted Eastern mines compete with the Western ones. In 1889, the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Concentrating Works was formed, and Edison became absorbed by its operations and began to spend much time away from home at the mines in Ogdensburg, New Jersey. Although he invested much money and time into this project, it proved unsuccessful when the market went down and additional sources of ore in the Midwest were found.
Edison also became involved in promoting the use of cement and formed the Edison Portland Cement Co. in 1899. He tried to promote widespread use of cement for the construction of low-cost homes and envisioned alternative uses for concrete in the manufacture of phonographs, furniture, refrigerators, and pianos. Unfortunately, Edison was ahead of his time with these ideas, as widespread use of concrete proved economically unfeasible at that time.
Motion PicturesIn 1888, Edison met Eadweard Muybridge at West Orange and viewed Muybridge's zoopraxiscope. This machine used a circular disc with still photographs of the successive phases of movement around the circumference to recreate the illusion of movement. Edison declined to work with Muybridge on the device and decided to work on his own motion picture camera at his laboratory. As Edison put it in a caveat written the same year, "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear."
The task of inventing the machine fell to Edison's associate William K. L. Dickson. Dickson initially experimented with a cylinder-based device for recording images, before turning to a celluloid strip. In October of 1889, Dickson greeted Edison's return from Paris with a new device that projected pictures and contained sound. After more work, patent applications were made in 1891 for a motion picture camera, called a Kinetograph, and a Kinetoscope, a motion picture peephole viewer.
Kinetoscope parlors opened in New York and soon spread to other major cities during 1894. In 1893, a motion picture studio, later dubbed the Black Maria (the slang name for a police paddy wagon which the studio resembled), was opened at the West Orange complex. Short films were produced using variety acts of the day. Edison was reluctant to develop a motion picture projector, feeling that more profit was to be made with the peephole viewers.
When Dickson aided competitors on developing another peephole motion picture device and the eidoloscope projection system, later to develop into the Mutoscope, he was fired. Dickson went on to form the American Mutoscope Co. along with Harry Marvin, Herman Casler, and Elias Koopman. Edison subsequently adopted a projector developed by Thomas Armat and Charles Francis Jenkins and re-named it the Vitascope and marketed it under his name. The Vitascope premiered on April 23, 1896, to great acclaim.
Competition from other motion picture companies soon created heated legal battles between them and Edison over patents. Edison sued many companies for infringement. In 1909, the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Co. brought a degree of cooperation to the various companies who were given licenses in 1909, but in 1915, the courts found the company to be an unfair monopoly.
In 1913, Edison experimented with synchronizing sound to film. A Kinetophone was developed by his laboratory which synchronized sound on a phonograph cylinder to the picture on a screen. Although this initially brought interest, the system was far from perfect and disappeared by 1915. By 1918, Edison ended his involvement in the motion picture field.