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Moving picture device impressed the great Edison

Published September 11. 2010 09:00AM

"Be brave as your fathers before you. Have faith and go forward."

These were the words of Thomas Alva Edison, the great American scientist and businessman, who was one of the most prolific inventors in history. Edison held 1,093 U.S. patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

His inventions in the mass communication and telecommunications field, including the phonograph; motion picture camera; and a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb; propelled the world into the 20th century.

The worldwide acclaim and the respect the Edison name had during the late 18th and early 20th century was, in a word, electric. When it came to finding favor for a new invention or product, there could be no greater endorsement than the one Edison's name commanded.

During the summer of 1910, two Tamaqua entrpreneurs were surprised when one of their own inventions gained the attention of the famous "Wizard of Menlo Park." Jacob B. Merkel and George J. Carroll received written correspondence that the Edison Company was interested in a device which they hoped could give a boost to the fledgling film industry.

That summer, the two men received a patent for their invention involving a film-winding mechanism for "motion picture machines." According to a front-page article in the Tamaqua Courier on Aug. 24, the Edison company considered it "a remarkable instrument" and one that would "revolutionize the film business."

Merkel and Carroll's new magazine device did away with the rewinding of films after being taken from the reel. It didn't take long for their invention to gain approval from the patent office. From the time the two men applied on March 19, the process took just five months, a remarkably short time since the usual time for patents was about a year.

Even while their patent was being reviewed, the two men were receiving regular inquiries and offers on their mechanism. The Courier stated, however, that they wouldn't take action until the patent was granted.

The most recognized suitor was the Edison Company, which, according to the Courier, offered to buy the patent or secure the American and foreign rights on it, paying the local men a royalty on all machines sold.

"They consider it a remarkable instrument and state that it will revolutionize the film business," the Courier reported. "Both of their offers were quite liberal and they are being held under consideration."

This was high praise indeed from a company which helped pioneer the film business. Edison had several connections to the coal regions. After riding the famous Switchback Railroad, Edison once commented that the famous tourist ride - forerunner of the roller coaster - could not be improved on.

Also, one of Edison's most important early film ventures involved the Lehigh Valley and the coal regions. The company began filming trains and railways and, with the help of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, produced a work on the Black Diamond Express in December 1896.

Edison went on to record other important news events, such as President McKinley's inauguration in 1897.

By 1910, the trend among American producers, including Edison, was on moralistic entertainment and educational films. That year, Edison released an adaptation of Mary Shelley's tale, "Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus."

Edison always understood the value of tailoring his inventions to the average consumer. His first great invention was the tin foil phonograph, which he said had many practical uses, including letter writing and dictation, phonographic books for blind people, a family record (recording family members in their own voices), music boxes and toys, clocks that announce the time, and a connection with the telephone so communications could be recorded. He toured the country with the tin foil phonograph, even giving President Rutherford B. Hayes a demonstration in 1878.

The following year, his Parlor Speaking Phonograph was introduced.

In 1911, the company's Home Projecting Kinetoscope brought film-viewing into the home. It used a small arc lamp and was also able to show miniature Magic Lantern slides that were printed with 10 images on each glass plate.

The intense competition among motion picture companies did create heated legal battles over patents and Edison often found itself in the middle of them, suing many companies for infringement.

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 Edison company to be an unfair monopoly.

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