Nonfiction is the new black
Nearly everyone is familiar with Thomas Edison, born [February 11] day in 1847.
When Thomas started school, his teacher called him “addled,” and he soon dropped out. His mother home-schooled him for several years. He began his entrepreneurial career when he was 12, publishing his own newspaper and selling it on the train. A few years later, he became a telegrapher and started tinkering in his spare time. He made many improvements to telegraphy and eventually turned to inventing full-time in his New Jersey workshop.
He was amazingly persistent. He explained that “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” and “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” As a result of his persistence, he received more than 2,000 patents worldwide. These patents included the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the movie camera. He became one of the most famous Americans of his era. When he died in 1931, light bulbs around the world were briefly dimmed or turned off.
There’s another, lesser-known side of Edison however. He was a ruthless businessman. One of the most notable examples involved the movie camera. Soon after inventing it, he established a company called Edison Studios in New Jersey. The building was set on rollers to follow the sun’s path across the sky. In 1894, his 5-second film “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” became the first-ever copyrighted motion picture. Audiences loved this new technology and flocked to theatres. To meet the demand, many other small moviemaking companies sprang up.
Edison hated the competition. In 1898, he began filing lawsuits to force them out of business. When that didn’t work, he organized the Motion Picture Patents Company, a group of 10 film companies headed by Edison Studios. The Patents Company continued the court battles. Presumably with Edison’s approval, it sometimes hired thugs who broke into rival studios and ransacked them.
Not surprisingly, many of Edison’s victims wanted to get as far away as they could. They headed for southern California, on the other side of the country. Side benefits were generally better weather that allowed year-round filming, a variety of terrain features, and cheap land and labor. Many of the newcomers established their offices in a tiny village near Los Angeles called Hollywood—the name now synonymous with the movie industry.
Click! The lights come on, and it seems like the most natural thing in the world. But without science, you’d be left in the dark. Jim Whiting's The Science of Lighting a City takes a closer look at the amazing places that Edison's invention of the light bulb has led.
Whiting, Jim. "Thomas Edison: Cutthroat Businessman." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 21 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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