February 11 marks the anniversary of Thomas Edison’s birth in Milan, Ohio, in 1847. A prolific inventor, Edison acquired more than a thousand patents for his inventions, which include the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera. Derivatives of many of these inventions remain embedded in our lives today, though we don’t always make the connection to Edison.
In addition to inventing apparatus for filming and projecting moving pictures, Edison’s company also produced films ranging from actualities to comedies and dramas and holds the honor of producing the earliest surviving film submitted for copyright. That film, variously called “Edison kinetoscopic record of a sneeze, January 7, 1894” or “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” is described as being “…made for publicity purposes, as a series of still photographs to accompany an article in Harper’s weekly.” The film is listed on the National Film Registry, which selects 25 films each year to increase awareness of the range and diversity of American film for its preservation. Students might study the film and discuss why it was added to the film registry, keeping in mind when it was created as well as why. Consult the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Motion Pictures for additional questions to deepen students’ thinking.
More than 300 of Edison’s films, plus sound recordings and related materials, are available in the Library of Congress collection Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies. Students might consider how Edison’s work developed over time by examining the comedy Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show, created in 1902.
- On an initial viewing, students should note what they think is happening, and what they wonder. If time allows, the class might create a brief description of events. (A description from the Edison Films Catalog is also available in the item summary.)
- They might watch a second time and compare the purpose of this movie to the purpose of Fred Ott’s Sneeze.
- What can the learn about Edison’s work by comparing the two films?
- Finally, students might compare the two films to what they typically watch, and consider what has remained the same and what has changed.
Please take a moment and let us know what your students thought about these films from the early days of motion pictures.