Edwin S. Porter Biography

Director (1870–1941)
American filmmaker Edwin S. Porter invented the Simplex camera for the Edison Company, and pioneered new techniques in films like The Great Train Robbery.


Edwin S. Porter was born April 21, 1870, in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. In 1897, he invented the Beadnell film projector. As the Edison Company's director-cameraman, Porter filmed The Great Train Robbery. He later invested in his own film equipment company, but the 1929 stock market crash put him out of business. In the 1930s he worked on home-movie cameras. He died on April 3, 1941, in New York City.

Early Years

Filmmaker Edwin S. Porter was born in the small coal-processing town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania, on April 21, 1870. He was the fourth child in a brood of eight. The son of a furniture merchant, Porter dropped out of school when he was 14 years old. He then took on a string of odd jobs, including theater cashier, stagehand and machinist specializing in the installation of electrical equipment.

As a young adult, Porter experimented with telegraphs and electricity. In the early 1890s, he contributed to Bradley A. Fiske's development of the electric rangefinder.

Porter joined the U.S. Navy in 1893. Three years later, he returned home to find that his friends had purchased from Raff & Gammon the sole rights to screen films with Thomas Edison's Vitascope projector. After working for his friends as a projectionist in Los Angeles and Indianapolis, Porter took a job working directly for Raff & Gammon in New York. When the Edison Company dissolved its connection with Raff & Gammon, Porter continued to work as a freelance projectionist.

In 1897, Porter invented his own film projector, called the Beadnell. The projector, which emitted a more vivid and steady image, ceased being produced in 1900—when Porter's factory was destroyed in a fire.

Working for Edison

Porter was hired in 1900 to redesign and tweak the Edison Company's film equipment. As Edison's director-cameraman, Porter filmed such single-shot motion pictures as Kansas Saloon Smashers. He soon worked his way up to filming movies containing special effects, as well as stories told over the course of multiple scenes. In 1901, Porter shot Pan-American Exposition by Night, employing the use of time-lapse photography.

Porter produced one of his best-known works while with the Edison Company. 1903's The Great Train Robbery was one of the first motion pictures ever to show a narrative progress with the advent of each new scene. The movie, which startled audiences with gunshots aimed at the camera, was such a smash success that Edison granted Porter the freedom to create his own one-reel films. As a result, Porter shot The Kleptomaniac (1905), Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) and Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908). While working for Edison, Porter also helped improve a projector called the Simplex.

Branching Out on His Own

In 1909, Porter left the Edison Company to venture out on his own as a film producer and equipment manager. A year after he formed Rex Films in 1911, Porter abandoned the project to collaborate with a filmmaker and a Broadway producer in creating the "Famous Players in Famous Plays" series, featuring actress Sarah Bernhardt. With the Famous Players Company, Porter also made the hits The Prisoner of Zenda (1913) and Tess of the Storm Country (1914). After several creative disagreements with his collaborators, Porter went back to inventing improvements in film equipment and further experimenting with 3-D photography. He invested the money he made from making movies into his own film equipment company, Precision Machine Company. Porter's company was successful until the stock market crash of 1929 put him out of business.

Later Life and Death

Following the stock market crash, Porter took whatever work he could get as a machinist and retreated into a life of seclusion. In the 1930s he tinkered with home-movie cameras, attempting to develop an affordable model. After he had a stroke he was unable to proceed with his experiments. Porter died with little fanfare on April 3, 1941, at the Taft Hotel in New York City.

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