‘Lost and Found: Edison’s 1913 Kinetophone Films’

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Thomas Edison National Historical Park will host two programs on Edison and the development of motion pictures this weekend. 

On Saturday, Feb. 15, at 1 p.m., Library of Congress Nitrate Film Vault manager George Willeman will present a program on the digital restoration of eight surviving Edison kinetophone films. Produced in 1913, the kinetophone films were Edison’s unsuccessful attempt to introduce commercial motion pictures with synchronized sound. The program will be held at the Edison Laboratory Complex, 211 Main St., West Orange.

The eight kinetophone films, originally part of the Thomas Edison NHP collection, were transferred to the custody of the Library of Congress during the 1960s and for many years were stored at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Willeman became aware of these films in the early 1980s while working at the Air Force base and attending Wright State University. 

Willeman’s goal of restoring the films became possible with recent advances in digital technology. Using state-of-the-art equipment, technicians at the Library of Congress were able to reconstruct the kinetophone films with the audio recordings that had survived in the sound archives at Thomas Edison NHP. Presented initially at the 2016 Orphan Film Symposium at the Library of Congress, the restored kinetophone films debuted publicly at the Museum of Modern Art in the fall of 2016. 

“The reconstruction fills a previously unknown gap in motion picture history of one of the early ‘successful failures’ in an attempt to bring sound to motion pictures,” Willeman said. “Above and beyond that, they are a wonderful view of the style of live theater performed in the early 20th century.”

On Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2 p.m., Willeman will speak at the fourth meeting of the Edison Book Club, a series of programs designed to engage readers with “Edison,” the new biography by Edmund Morris. The discussion will focus on Morris’ interpretation of Edison’s role in the development of motion pictures, but questions about other aspects of motion picture history or other themes in the Morris book are also welcome. The Edison Book Club is free and open to the public. Reading the Morris biography is encouraged but not required. The Edison Book Club program will be held at the Edison Laboratory Complex, 211 Main St., West Orange.