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THE preceding chapters have treated of Edison in various aspects as an inventor, some of which are familiar to the public, others of which are believed to be in the nature of a novel revelation, simply because no one had taken the trouble before to put the facts together. To those who have perhaps grown weary of seeing Edison's name in articles of a sensational character, it may sound strange to say that, after all, justice has not been done to his versatile and many-sided nature; and that the mere prosaic facts of his actual achievement outrun the wildest flights of irrelevant journalistic imagination. Edison hates nothing more than to be dubbed a genius or played up as a "wizard"; but this fate has dogged him until he has come at last to resign himself to it with a resentful indignation only to be appreciated when watching him read the latest full-page Sunday "spread" that develops a casual conversation into oracular verbosity, and gives to his shrewd surmise the cast of inspired prophecy.
In other words, Edison's real work has seldom been seriously discussed. Rather has it been taken as a point of departure into a realm of fancy and romance, where as a relief from drudgery he is sometimes quite willing to play the pipe if some one will dance to it. Indeed, the stories woven around his casual suggestions are tame and vapid alongside his own essays in fiction, probably never to be published, but which show what a real inventor can do when he cuts loose to create a new heaven and a new earth, unrestrained by any formal respect for existing conditions of servitude to three dimensions and the standard elements.
The present chapter, essentially technical in its subject-matter, is perhaps as significant as any in this biography, because it presents Edison as the Master Impresario of his age, and maybe of many following ages also. His phonographs and his motion pictures have more audiences in a week than all the theatres in America in a year. The "Nickelodeon" is the central fact in modern amusement, and Edison founded it. All that millions know of music and drama he furnishes; and the whole study of the theatrical managers thus reaching the masses is not to ascertain the limitations of the new art, but to discover its boundless possibilities. None of the exuberant versions of things Edison has not done could endure for a moment with the simple narrative of what he has really done as the world's new Purveyor of Pleasure. And yet it all depends on the toilful conquest of a subtle and intricate art. The story of the invention of the phonograph has been told. That of the evolution of motion pictures follows. It is all one piece of sober, careful analysis, and stubborn, successful attack on the problem.
The possibility of making a record of animate movement, and subsequently reproducing it, was predicted long before the actual accomplishment. This, as we have seen, was also the case with the phonograph, the telephone, and the electric light. As to the phonograph, the prediction went only so far as the RESULT; the apparent intricacy of the problem being so great that the MEANS for accomplishing the desired end were seemingly beyond the grasp of the imagination or the mastery of invention.
With the electric light and the telephone the prediction included not only the result to be accomplished, but, in a rough and general way, the mechanism itself; that is to say, long before a single sound was intelligibly transmitted it was recognized that such a thing might be done by causing a diaphragm, vibrated by original sounds, to communicate its movements to a distant diaphragm by a suitably controlled electric current. In the case of the electric light, the heating of a conductor to incandescence in a highly rarefied atmosphere was suggested as a scheme of illumination long before its actual accomplishment, and in fact before the production of a suitable generator for delivering electric current in a satisfactory and economical manner.
It is a curious fact that while the modern art of motion pictures depends essentially on the development of instantaneous photography, the suggestion of the possibility of securing a reproduction of animate motion, as well as, in a general way, of the mechanism for accomplishing the result, was made many years before the instantaneous photograph became possible. While the first motion picture was not actually produced until the summer of 1889, its real birth was almost a century earlier, when Plateau, in France, constructed an optical toy, to which the impressive name of "Phenakistoscope" was applied, for producing an illusion of motion. This toy in turn was the forerunner of the Zoetrope, or so-called "Wheel of Life," which was introduced into this country about the year 1845. These devices were essentially toys, depending for their successful operation (as is the case with motion pictures) upon a physiological phenomenon known as persistence of vision. If, for instance, a bright light is moved rapidly in front of the eye in a dark room, it appears not as an illuminated spark, but as a line of fire; a so-called shooting star, or a flash of lightning produces the same effect. This result is purely physiological, and is due to the fact that the retina of the eye may be considered as practically a sensitized plate of relatively slow speed, and an image impressed upon it remains, before being effaced, for a period of from one-tenth to one-seventh of a second, varying according to the idiosyncrasies of the individual and the intensity of the light. When, therefore, it is said that we should only believe things we actually see, we ought to remember that in almost every instance we never see things as they are.
Bearing in mind the fact that when an image is impressed on the human retina it persists for an appreciable period, varying as stated, with the individual, and depending also upon the intensity of the illumination, it will be seen that, if a number of pictures or photographs are successively presented to the eye, they will appear as a single, continuous photo- graph, provided the periods between them are short enough to prevent one of the photographs from being effaced before its successor is presented. If, for instance, a series of identical portraits were rapidly presented to the eye, a single picture would apparently be viewed, or if we presented to the eye the series of photographs of a moving object, each one representing a minute successive phase of the movement, the movements themselves would apparently again take place.
With the Zoetrope and similar toys rough drawings were used for depicting a few broadly outlined successive phases of movement, because in their day instantaneous photography was unknown, and in addition there were certain crudities of construction that seriously interfered with the illumination of the pictures, rendering it necessary to make them practically as silhouettes on a very conspicuous background. Hence it will be obvious that these toys produced merely an ILLUSION of THEORETICAL motion.
But with the knowledge of even an illusion of motion, and with the philosophy of persistence of vision fully understood, it would seem that, upon the development of instantaneous photography, the reproduction of ACTUAL motion by means of pictures would have followed, almost as a necessary consequence. Yet such was not the case, and success was ultimately accomplished by Edison only after persistent experimenting along lines that could not have been predicted, including the construction of apparatus for the purpose, which, if it had not been made, would undoubtedly be considered impossible. In fact, if it were not for Edison's peculiar mentality, that refuses to recognize anything as impossible until indubitably demonstrated to be so, the production of motion pictures would certainly have been delayed for years, if not for all time.
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Edison, His Life and Inventions -by- F. L. Dyer and T. C. MartinBottom Content goes here. Wikipedia content requires these links..... Wikipedia content is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.