May 13

This Day in History

Hollywood

May 13, 1898:

Edison sues over new motion-picture technology

On this day in 1898, Thomas Edison sues the American Mutoscope Company, claiming that the studio has infringed on his patent for the Kinetograph movie camera.

Thomas Edison, born in Ohio in 1847, had already invented the phonograph, the light bulb and other important technologies by 1887, when he moved his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory to Orange, New Jersey. In Orange, Edison entrusted his assistant, W.L.K. Dickson, with the development of a new machine that could capture moving images. Dickson designed the Kinetograph, a camera that used celluloid film advanced by a sprocket that fit into square perforations running along the film, as well as the Kinetoscope, which projected moving images in a single-viewer peep-show format. Edison first publicly demonstrated the machine in 1891.

Edison realized the financial drawbacks of the peep-show format and contracted rights to a camera developed by two of his assistants, Jenkins and Armat, called the Vitascope. The Vitascope was publicly displayed in 1896 in a New York vaudeville hall. After Dickson helped Edison’s competitors develop another motion-picture device, which would eventually become the mutoscope, Edison fired him. With Harry Marvin, Herman Casler and Elias Koopman, Dickson later founded a new movie company, American Mutoscope (later renamed American Mutoscope and Biograph, and then simply Biograph). In the lawsuit filed in May 1898, Edison accused the company of stealing his work; it was one of many infringement lawsuits he would file. In 1902, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Edison did not invent the motion-picture camera, but allowed that he had invented the sprocket system that moved perforated film through the camera.

In 1909, Edison joined forces with other filmmakers to create the Motion Pictures Patents Corp., an organization devoted to protecting patents and keeping other players from entering the film industry. The courts later found the organization to be an unfair monopoly, and in 1917 the Supreme Court dissolved the trust. By the following year, the Edison Company had abandoned the film industry.

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