Inventor lost battles with Edison

Thursday, March 21, 2002

Name any common electrical or entertainment device from before 1920 and there's a good chance Thomas A. Edison invented it. But there's also a chance that Edward H. Amet invented it, too.

Indeed, Amet's penchant for working in the same fields as Edison led him into some battles with Edison's patent attorneys -- battles Amet inevitably lost. But Amet's new champion, Kirk Ketatos of Grayslake, says it wasn't a simple case of the Wizard of Menlo Park vs. the Waukegan Wannabe.

"Amet wasn't a copycat, and his designs were often much better and more practical than Edison's, but he didn't have the money behind him that Edison did and he didn't have a stable of assistants to do the actual work, like Edison did," said the semiretired architect in a recent telephone interview.

Important film producer

Charles Musser, a professor of film history and American studies at Yale University, is pleased that Ketatos is taking on Amet's cause.

"I'm glad that someone is doing this," Musser said. "Amet may not be a major figure, but he's certainly a very interesting one. He was one of the most important film producers of the 1890s, and he was a very talented machinist and mechanic. He was always fooling around with the very latest technology, and if he didn't always perfect it, it was because he didn't have the backing Edison did."

Ketatos, 74, who collects antique photographic devices, is particularly impressed by Amet's 1894 invention of the Magniscope, which some authorities class as the first practical 35-millimeter motion picture projector. The rival device invented by the Lumiere Brothers of France didn't appear until 1895.

"The motion picture devices invented earlier by Edison and others were essentially peep shows that only one person could watch at a time," Ketatos said. "But by August 1894, Amet was showing short films to group audiences at the old Phoenix Opera House in Waukegan."

Amet, who had not bothered to patent his Magniscope, allegedly had used some Edison equipment in making his films. He sold out to a Philadelphia company which, in turn, sold out to Edison a short time later.

Clashes over creations

Amet had clashed with Edison a few years earlier when he invented a governor-controlled spring-driven phonograph, the first practical portable record player.

Edison's phonograph relied on commercial electric current, which was not available yet in many parts of the country, or on cumbersome and dangerous dry-cell batteries.

Amet's phonograph could be taken anywhere.. Unfortunately, Amet's machines used Edison records, which led to a lawsuit that closed his Chicago Talking Machine Co. A similar fate met Amet's "Nickle in The Slot Graphophone" in 1896.

Ketatos said that although Edison reportedly hated Amet, Amet didn't seem to bear any animosity toward Edison.

"Once he invented something and made it work, he lost interest and moved on to something else. He was mostly interested in the intellectual challenge," Ketatos said.

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