“Since the kinetograph’s invention, Edison had wanted to ascertain if it was sensitive enough to follow the flight of a bullet. He may have invited Cody to come to his studio and shoot before the camera, or it may have been Cody’s idea as publicity for his upcoming European tour. Because of their popularity as entertainers, Edison was also pleased to film the show’s Indians” (Sagala, 19).

Edison and Cody

One of the leading innovators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Thomas Alva Edison (February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931) developed countless inventions during his lifetime, the lightbulb and direct-current electricity among them. The motion picture camera, however, is the one invention that Edison never expected to be profitable. Still, he submitted a patent for the Kinetoscope camera after several years of experimentation on August 24, 1891. Edison's initial skepticism regarding the financial viability of this invention was reversed when he realized profits could be made by developing projectors that allowed several people to view a film simultaneously (Sagala, 12).

From that point on, Edison's interest in the burgeoning motion picture business snowballed. In 1892 and 1893, he built America's first film studio, nicknamed “The Black Maria,” in West Orange, New Jersey. There, Edison and his cadre of inventors, including William Kennedy Dickson, the Edison company's official photographer, worked together to develop film strips and film various subjects first for experimentation and later for “posterity.” Later still, they began filming for entertainment. In 1903, Edison's cameraman, Edwin S. Porter, became one of the first to ever direct, produce, and edit a narrative film set in the West: The Great Train Robbery.

Simultaneously, and fortuitously, Edison repeatedly crossed paths with Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. These two international celebrities first met in 1889 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, France. Edison even attended a performance of "Buffalo Bill's Wild West," at which time Cody invited him to ride the Deadwood coach “on its perilous journey” around the arena. Later during the Exposition, Edison's people used another of his inventions, the phonograph, to record Red Shirt, one of Cody's Indian performers, performing a war cry and then played it back to the astonishment of all in attendance (Jonnes, 134).

Edison and Cody met once again in 1893 at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition where the famous frontiersman praised the inventor's kinematograph. It seemed only natural, then, that as Edison continued experimenting and filming at the Black Maria studio that he would film the Wild West Show when it performed in New York City during the autumn of 1894 just a few months after the first commercial motion picture house opened there on Broadway. Cody and several members of the show traveled to West Orange, New Jersey on September 24 to be filmed. The following month, several of the showmen and women stayed behind to be filmed again while the rest of the company went on to perform in Europe (Sagala, 18, 22).

Later in 1895, William Dickson noted that these films would be “historically valuable long after our polished continent has parted with the last races of her romantic past” (Collins and Gitelman, 166). There can be little doubt that these initial short films inspired Cody to do the same by producing his own film documenting the last Indian wars of the early 1890s.

Selected Archival Materials

Cody's Tribute to Edison (n.d.)

Scene 1: Buffalo Bill rapid shooting (Edison, 1894)

Scene 2: Sioux Ghost Dance (Edison, 1894)

Scene 3: Buffalo Bill and Last Horse war council (Edison, 1894)

Scene 4: Buffalo Dance (Edison,1894)

Scene 5: Vaqueros and Sheiks (Edison, 1894)

Scene 6: Bucking Broncho (Edison, 1894)

Scene 7: Annie Oakley (Edison, 1894)

Buffalo Bill and Escort (Edison, 1897)

Parade of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, no. 1 (1898)

Parade of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, no. 2 (1898)