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Collection Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

Decline of the Edison Company

Advertisement for the Edison Kinetoscope. The Moving Picture News, March 29, 1913, p. 6.

Despite its arrangement with the Motion Picture Patents Company, however, Edison films could not keep pace with the quality of competitors' films in terms of the advances made in narration. As a result Porter was taken away from his position of cameraman and made studio head, and later a consultant. Growing increasingly dissatisfied with his role, he was eventually let go from the company in November 1909. Few Edison films from this period survive today.

The Edison Company tried to improve its image through several initiatives. Imitating its competitors, Edison developed a stock company of actors in 1910. The company also tried to cultivate an image of respectability by making films for public service organizations like the American Red Cross or the New York Milk Committee. Famous literary works or historical events became the inspiration for film plots.

At this time, the Edison Company also attempted to improve its operations and products. In 1911, Thomas Edison again reorganized his businesses, combining various ventures, including the motion picture interests, into Thomas A. Edison, Inc. The same year also brought the first Edison multireel films (all previous Edison films had not been longer than 1,000 feet or 18 minutes in duration). The Home Projecting Kinetoscope was also launched in late 1911, using 21mm film. The following year saw its first serial film, What Happened to Jane.

Advertisement for the Edison Kinetoscope. The Moving Picture News, January 18, 1913, p. 6.

But from 1912 onwards Edison's company was in sharp decline. It could not stay on the cutting edge of film production, and did not keep pace with competitors' innovations in film narration, partly because film production was not the main focus of Edison's industrial empire. An antimonopoly ruling delivered against the Trust in October 1915 was another blow to Edison's film business.

Edison continued to introduce new products in an effort to improve the situation. The Kinetophone, which was designed to merge the motion picture camera with the phonograph, was introduced in 1913. While this Kinetophone was an improvement on the earlier model, it ultimately proved unsuccessful due to the difficulty of achieving synchronization and to the lackluster reception of the film subjects by viewers. Falling sales for motion picture projectors by 1915 led to the end of the manufacture of Edison motion picture equipment, in spite of the introduction of a Super-Kinetoscope.

By 1915, Edison began using outside distributors for features, including Paramount and George Kleine, but the coming of World War I meant the loss of European markets. Efforts to diminish expenditures at the Edison Company were unsuccessful. Attempts to provide more wholesome films through a series known as the "Conquest Pictures" (Gold and Diamond Mines of South Africa) failed to rescue the company's flagging financial situation. On March 30, 1918, Thomas A. Edison, Inc., sold the studio and plant to the Lincoln & Parker Film Company, thus ending Thomas Edison's involvement in film production.

Sources used in this essay:

Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915. History of the American Cinema, Vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Musser, Charles. The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. History of the American Cinema, Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.

Musser, Charles. Thomas A. Edison and His Kinetographic Motion Pictures. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Robinson, David. From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

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