Edwin S. Porter
April 21, 1870 – April 30, 1941
Birth and education
Edwin Porter was born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania to Thomas Richard Porter, a merchant, and Mary Jane (Clark) Porter; he had three brothers and one sister. After attending public schools in Connellsville and Pittsburgh, Porter worked, among other odd jobs, as an exhibition skater, a sign painter, and a telegraph operator.
He was employed for a time in the electrical department of William Cramp & Sons, a Philadelphia ship and engine building company, and in 1893 enlisted in the United States Navy as an electrician. During his three years' service he showed aptitude as an inventor of electrical devices to improve communications.
Porter entered motion picture work in 1896, the first year movies were commercially projected on large screens in the United States. He was briefly employed in New York City by Raff & Gammon, agents for the films and viewing equipment made by Thomas Edison, and then left to become a touring projectionist with a competing machine, Kuhn & Webster's Projectorscope. He traveled through the West Indies and South America, showing films at fairgrounds and in open fields, and later made a second tour through Canada and the United States. Returning to New York, he worked as a projectionist and attempted, unsuccessfully, to set up a manufacturing concern for motion picture cameras and projectors.
In 1899 Porter joined the Edison Manufacturing Company. Soon afterward he took charge of motion picture production at Edison's New York studios, operating the camera, directing the actors, and assembling the final print. During the next decade he became the most influential filmmaker in the United States. From his experience as a touring projectionist Porter knew what pleased crowds, and he began by making trick films and comedies for Edison. One of his early films was Terrible Teddy, the Grizzly King, a satire made in February 1901 about the then Vice President-elect, Theodore Roosevelt. Like all early filmmakers, he took ideas from others, but rather than simply copying films he tried to improve on what he borrowed. In his Jack and the Beanstalk (1902) and Life of an American Fireman (1903) he followed earlier films by France's Georges Méliès and members of England's "Brighton School", such as James Williamson. Instead of using abrupt splices or cuts between shots, however, Porter created dissolves, gradual transitions from one image to another. In Life of an American Fireman particularly, the technique helped audiences follow complex outdoor movement. In his next and most important film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), Porter took the archetypal American Western story, already familiar to audiences from dime novels and stage melodrama, and made it an entirely new visual experience. The one-reel film, with a running time of twelve minutes, was assembled in twenty separate shots, along with a startling close-up of a bandit firing at the camera. It used as many as ten different indoor and outdoor locations and was groundbreaking in its use of "cross-cutting" in editing to show simultaneous action in different places. No earlier film had created such swift movement or variety of scene. The Great Train Robbery was enormously popular. For several years it toured throughout the United States, and in 1905 it was the premier attraction at the first nickelodeon. Its success firmly established motion pictures as commercial entertainment in the United States.
Edwin S. Porter
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