Edison began working on motion pictures after seeing a lecture by Eadweard Muybridge, who used his zoopraxiscope to simulate the motion of animals. Edison's discussion with Muybridge stimulated him to take up the subject of moving pictures. In doing so, he sought to design "an instrument that does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear." Edison's first design involved photographing a series of pictures on a cylinder that would then be viewed through a microscope as they turned. In addition, he planned to create sound movies by linking this device with a phonograph.

Edison's work on motion pictures drew heavily on the talents of W. K. L. Dickson, a member of his experimental staff who was also a photographer. While Edison provided the resources, the vision for the invention, and the electromechanical knowledge used in designing motion picture devices, Dickson provided most of the knowledge of photography that those inventions drew on. By 1892 Edison and Dickson invented a motion picture camera and a peephole viewing device called the Kinetoscope. They were first shown publicly in 1893 and the following year the first Edison films were exhibited commercially.

Black Maria

The films were made in the Black Maria, a tar-paper shack studio at Edison's West Orange Laboratory. The roof of the Black Maria lifted up so that sunlight could come into the black interior and the whole building revolved on a track so it could follow the sun.

Edison was one of many inventors in the United States and Europe who were working on motion pictures and should be credited as the first to introduce a commercial system. However, Edison played almost no role in the development of projector technology and other improvements in motion picture technology. Indeed, although the first projector used by the Edison film company was called the Edison Vitascope, it was designed by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Edison had relatively little to do with the film business and left the making of motion pictures to others, notably Edwin S. Porter, who directed the innovative Great Train Robbery in 1903. By 1918 Edison was out of the film business.

Great Train Robbery