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If I wanted to sleep on the floor tonight, I'd suggest Thomas Edison might have saved many men of the world a lot of trouble by debuting his motion picture device, the kinetoscope, to the National Federation of Men's Clubs, not the Women's Clubs.

Or I might suggest that Edison stayed away from including sound capabilities with the kinetoscope because that experience taught him audiences would drown it out or that audiences would provide their own dialogue.

I would be correct if I said Nickelodeon can be traced back to the kinetoscope, and I would further be correct if I said Edison receives credit today for something he did not invent. That credit should go to William Kennedy Laurie Dickson and Charles A. Brown, neither of whom has Edison in his name.

And I probably wouldn't surprise my regular readers (and the curious and purist among the rest of you) if I said I have no desire to perpetuate the lie that Edison invented the motion picture. Not only did he not invent the kinetoscope, the kinetoscope was almost 100 years late!

For any child who asks the questions I was asking at 6 and am still asking 20 years later.

To get any enjoyment out of this diary, be prepared to:

  1. Accept that Thomas Edison's legacy has been inflated by the same kind of people who pushed the preposterous notion that Abner Doubleday invented baseball.
  1. Accept that the history of film is, as I noted above, about 100 years longer than most people know anything about.
  1. Accept that since this diary is based only the research I can do, half of it is wrong despite my best efforts, so it's really only a starting point for someone else to come along and show me where I diverged from the other road I and others are forever trying to follow and forever turning off from.

Because I can do only so much from this plastic chair in front of my computer, but at least I recognize my limitations. And if you can recognize yours, so much the better, even if it means you don't stay for my snazzy poll at the end.

First, my title. Today, Wikipedia (motto: "As accurate as Ted, this page's most recent editor") tells us, is the date on which Edison debuted the kinetoscope. Great. That's like celebrating the birth of printing by writing about Gutenberg.

Oh, didn't you know? Gutenberg was a metalsmith. Previous printing efforts had been with clay, which breaks. Metal's hardier stuff. Yeah, I hate how school simplifies things. Don't you?

So Edison debuted an assistant's hard work as his own, which is no surprise, considering it was his factory that took credit for most of the inventions, and considering Edison had no problem taking credit elsewhere.

So fine, you say. Edison didn't invent the kinetoscope or the light bulb. Holy shit, right? But dig deal. So what? Shakespeare didn't invent the stories he told, he just made them better. And we celebrate him for such (largely because Shakespeare was a product of a different time). So we should at least celebrate Edison for improving upon existing technology.

Great. Then let's do that. Instead of saying Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, let's say he made it better.

Not so shiny, is it? Not so much what we're taught in school, is it? So we search for the truth, and we find it: Joseph Swan invented the light bulb ... but even that isn't true. Poor forgotten and unloved Sir Humphry Davy.

OK, so no light bulb, no motion picture, but Edison was the first to electrify a city, right?

Technically, sure. By the definition of city, absolutely. Just don't tell Godalming, England, that. Really, it isn't worth it.

OK, so what else did Edison invent? Ooh! The phonograph! Yes! Unassailable!

He wasn't the first to record sound? (Registration required.) But in his defense, the phonograph proper probably was all him.

The typewriter! Yes! No.

For all the burying I have done in this diary, I have barely scratched the surface of Edison's legacy. Out of respect for the rest of his work (his or otherwise), and because I have to have something left to tell my kids (when they choose to materialize), I'm stopping here and giving you this, which has the benefit of being entirely true, as far as I can tell (and I'm afraid to do much digging, at this point).

And I'm leaving you with a story that shows how little things have changed in the last 140 or so years:

Thomas Edison built his reputation as an inventor on his foresight as a businessman. His first patent was for a machine politicians hated (warning: PDF). He had designed it for their use, but there was a slight problem:

"It was so perfect," says Mr. Edison, "and performed its work with such startling accuracy that those whom it was intended to benefit were afraid of it and would have none of it."

Quite right:

A fellow telegrapher named Dewitt Roberts bought an interest in the invention for $100 and took it to Washington, D.C. to exhibit to a committee of Congress. The chairman of the committee, unimpressed with the speed with which the instrument could record votes, told him that "if there is any invention on earth that we don't want down here, that is it." The slow pace of roll call voting in Congress and other legislatures enabled members to filibuster legislation or convince others to change their votes.

It would have taken the politics out of politics.

Originally posted to iampunha on Tue May 20, 2008 at 04:29 AM PDT.


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