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10 Early Films Made by Edison's Movie Company

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In 1888, Thomas Edison wrote that "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion." The system was comprised of the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera, and a Kinetoscope, a motion picture viewer, and was mostly created by Edison's assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. (The system was likely inspired by the zoopraxiscope created by photographer—and murderer!—Eadweard Muybridge to show off his motion photographs.) Early films from the Edison Manufacturing Co. showed off "actualities": celebrities, news, disasters, and expositions. But later, the company switched to creating narrative films more in line with what we watch at the movies today. Here are a few of the company's early productions.

1. How a French nobleman got a wife through the New York Herald personal columns, 1904

This film—in which a nobleman places a personal ad and, according to the company's catalog, has so many suitors that he "runs for his life down the Riverside Drive"—was a copy of the Biograph company's 1904 movie Personal. According to the Library of Congress, Edison's version did better than Biograph's, and was the most successful film for the company that year.

2. The Great Train Robbery, 1903

The Edison catalog called this movie, one of the most famous early films, a "sensational and highly tragic subject" that "will certainly make a decided 'hit' whenever shown. In every respect we consider it absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made." The movie was shot in Edison's studio in New York, at locations in New Jersey, and at the Lackawanna Railway. It starred Justua D. Barnes as the bandit leader and G.M. Anderson—who would later be known as Bronco Billy—in "a variety of roles," according to the Library of Congress. Two years later, Edison parodied this film with The Little Train Robbery, which starred a bunch of kids.

3. The Unappreciated Joke, 1903

Edison's company made a number of humor films early on, including this minute-long short, which could be purchased for $6.60 (about $169 in today's currency). The catalog describes the plot as follows:

Scene, interior of a street-car. A stout man enters and sits down alongside of a friend and proceeds to read a comic paper. He shows a joke in the paper to his friend, and they both laugh heartily. The friend leaves the car, and his absence is not noted by the stout man. An elderly matron takes the seat. Without looking up the stout man shoves the paper in front of the face of the old lady, thinking his friend is still there. He goes into a fit of laughter over the joke, punching her in the ribs with his thumb, and slapping her on the knee. She becomes very much embarrassed and indignant. She shakes him by the shoulder, he looks around, discovers his mistake, and sinks through the floor.

4. Terrible Teddy, The Grizzly King, 1901

This "side splitting" burlesque—which here is used to mean "derisive imitation, grotesque parody," rather than the modern American meaning, circa the 1870s, of a "variety show featuring striptease"—was based on a series of political cartoons from the New York Journal and Advertiser. "Teddy with his large teeth is seen running down the hill with his gun in hand, followed by his photographer and press agent," the catalog reads. "He reconnoitres around a large tree and finally discovers the mountain lion. He kneels on one knee and makes a careful shot. Immediately upon the discharge of his gun a huge black cat falls from the tree and Teddy whips out his bowie knife, leaps on the cat and stabs it several times, then poses while his photographer makes a picture and the press agent writes up the thrilling adventure."

5. The Kleptomaniac, 1905

In this film (directed, like many Edison films, by Edwin S. Porter), two women—one wealthy, one poor—are arrested for shoplifting. The wealthy woman is released to her friends, while the poor woman, who was stealing to feed her children, is convicted and sent to jail.

6. Subub Surprises the Burglar, 1903

According to the Library of Congress, this film was based on a popular comic strip character. It also copied some of the plot points in Biograph's film The Burglar-Proof Bed.

7. Rube and Mandy at Coney Island, 1903

Filmed on location in Coney Island, this film features two actors dressed up as country bumpkins. According to Edison's catalog, the couple "amuse themselves on the steeplechase, rope bridge, riding the bulls and the 'Down and Out.' The scene then changes to a panorama of Luna Park, and we find Rube and Mandy doing stunts on the rattan slide, riding on the miniature railway, shooting the chutes, riding the boats in the old mill, and visiting Professor Wormwood's Monkey theatre. They next appear on the Bowery, where we find them with the fortune tellers, striking the punching machine, and winding up with the frankfurter man. The climax shows a bust view of Rube and Mandy eating frankfurters."

The movie, the catalog claims, is "interesting not only for its humorous features, but also for its excellent views of Coney Island and Luna Park."

8. Love and War, 1899

This film, which depicts the Spanish-American war, cost a whopping $45 in 1899 (about $1241 in 2013 currency). In it, a soldier leaves for war a private, is promoted for bravery, and falls in love with a Red Cross nurse, before "finally return[ing] home triumphantly as an officer to the father and mother to whom he bade good bye as a private," the catalog says. Each of the six scenes has its own song, "making the entire series a complete and effective novelty"; the songs could be "illustrated either by a soloist, quartette or with an orchestra, and with or without stereopticon slides. This series of animated pictures, when properly illustrated or announced by stereopticon reading matter, should make a great success."

9. Jack and the Beanstalk, 1902

"From this very simple and popular fairy tale we have produced a most pleasing, interesting and mirth producing play in motion pictures, introducing therein many surprising new tricks and dissolving effects," the catalog boasts, " ... following as closely as possible the accepted version of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK." Still, the filmmakers have departed slightly in some instances, "for the purpose of producing comedy (which in reality is the life of any animated picture play)," by burlesquing some of the elements:

[F]or instance, where the butcher trades the hatful of beans with Jack for his mother's cow, we have introduced a burlesque animal made up of two men covered over with the head, horns and hide of a cow. This animal goes through many ludicrous antics, such as kicking, jig dancing, sitting down with legs crossed, etc., and finally, after strenuous efforts on the part of the butcher, suffers herself to be led away.

"In this beautiful production," the catalog says in closing, "in changing from one scene to the other, transformations are made by beautiful dissolving and fading effects. There are no sudden jumps whatever, and the entire effect is at once pleasing, gratifying and comprehensive, and the audience finds itself following with ease the thread of this most wonderful of all fairy tales...."

10. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, 1906

This seven-minute film was based on the comic strip of the same name drawn by Winsor McCay and used a number of "trick" special effects. (The Carport Theatre has added period music and audio effects to this version.)

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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