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2 Porter's Early Years. 1870-1896
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Porter and Technological Innovation

A poor student who abandoned his formal education at an early age,[57] Ed Porter was inspired by the mythic Thomas Edison, famous stories of whose exploits and childhood were already celebrated in the press. The literature emphasized Edison's natural genius, which flourished without formal schooling, his unequaled instinct for useful inventions, and the assumed benefits of technology.[58] Porter, who would one day call himself Thomas Edison, Jr., sought to duplicate the childhood experiences of his idol. As an adolescent he sold newspapers on a train. In 1884-85, according to a later interview, Edward switched from "news butcher" to telegraph operator, working for the Pittsburgh, McKeesport and Youghiogheny Railroad at Demmler, located between Connellsville and Pittsburgh.[59] These were similar to the first jobs held by Edison. If this interview is correct, Porter began to work as a telegraph operator at the age of fourteen, beating his future employer by a precocious year. In the process he acquired a familiarity with electricity that was to help him enter the motion picture industry.

Connellsville and Porter's family were preoccupied with progress and being "up-to-date." Boyts, Porter & Company sold various mechanical innovations,


and the town itself was transformed by basic technological amenities while Porter lived there. After working as a telegraph operator for three or four years, Porter "took up the plumbing trade." A local gas company acquired a franchise for Connellsville in 1886 and by the following year was busy laying pipes to the homes of local residents. In September 1887 plumbers were "busy putting in the pipes."[60] Porter found employment installing this precursor of Edison's electric light. Assuming its resources to be limitless, the gas company left street lamps on twenty-four hours a day, which exhausted its supply of gas within only a few years. No doubt this was a compelling reason for Connellsville to acquire an electric light system in 1889-90.

In September 1889 a group of Connellsville businessmen formed an electric light company and received the local franchise. The generators and equipment used to supply alternating current were purchased from the Westinghouse Company, based in East Pittsburgh. Electric street lights were turned on in Porter's hometown on February 15, 1890. In another few weeks electricity was illuminating stores and residences of Connellsville and neighboring New Haven.[61] By the beginning of 1891 Ed Porter and his friend and fellow tinkerer Charles Balsley had used their spare time to invent a current regulator for electric lamps; this dimmer allowed people to control the intensity of an electric light as they had done with gas light. With this invention, Porter's creativity and his preference for collaborative working methods become apparent; both would continue throughout his working life. The patent application was filed on January 17th and granted on May 5th.[62] Soon after it was approved, the Courier announced:

Charles H. Balsley and Edward Porter received this week letters patent on an Electric Current Regulator, the joint invention of the two young men. It is said to be superior in many respects to any thing yet invented in that line, and can be manufactured almost as cheaply as the ordinary incandescent burners now in use. They have received several flattering offers from manufacturers of electric light machinery, etc. for the right to manufacture and use the appliance on their lamps. The boys, however, are moving with caution in the matter, and have not yet accepted any of the offers. They have also received several orders for the regulator, but as they are not manufacturing the article, they could not fill the orders.[63]

By the following winter J. R. Balsley was selling the device to local residents.[64] Perhaps for this reason, the electric company was soon warning its customers "not to tamper or interfere in any way with any of the poles, wires, converters, conduits or fixtures, etc. controlling or delivering the current made by the Electric Company."[65]

Despite his skills as an electrician and telegraph operator, Porter chose to live in Connellsville and become a merchant tailor. Under other circumstances his early interest in amusements and electricity might have been forgotten and the young small-town businessman would have become a solid, if not stolid, com-


Drawing for current regulator patented 
by Charles Balsley and Edwin Porter.


munity member. Economic realities, however, intervened. In a town where there were too many tailors, his career choice proved to be a poor one. Dry goods stores (mostly run by Jewish businessmen) were exerting competitive pressures on merchant tailors like Porter by offering ready-to-wear clothing. Here Porter's resistance to a modern industrial system, a fact crucial to an understanding of his later motion picture career and his opposition to techniques of mass entertainment, was already discernible. Nor was this unusual. The U.S. Industrial Commission would soon note the willingness of Jews in the garment industry "to change the mode of production by using the sewing machine and division of labor against which the native tailor has shown a decided aversion."[66] Direct parallels with the motion picture industry can easily be established. People like Carl Laemmle, who managed a dry goods store in the early 1900s, quickly understood the implications and possibilities inherent in the nickelodeon form of entertainment, to which Porter never fully accommodated himself.

In the spring of 1893, Porter's new business, already suffering from excessive competition, was battered by a financial panic and depression. The sales of Connellsville merchants fell precipitately, and Porter's small tailoring establishment was one of the first to close its doors—on June 15th, Edward filed for bankruptcy.[67] Ten days earlier, on June 5th, he had eloped to Cumberland, Maryland, with Caroline Ridinger, whose father was an architect in nearby Somerset, Pennsylvania.[68] Once he had declared bankruptcy, Porter left for Philadelphia. This forced separation from his hometown was an experience shared by many Americans. It undoubtedly fostered a nostalgia for small-town life, which was expressed not only in many nineteenth-century melodramas but in Porter's films The Miller's Daughter (1905) and The "White Caps " (1905).

In Philadelphia the ex-tailor enlisted in the navy on June 19, 1893, giving his name as Edwin S. Porter and his trade as telegraph operator. His enlistment record continues: "Eyes , Brown; Hair , Lt. brown; Complexion , Sunburned; Height , 5 feet 4¾ inches; Weight (pounds ), 150."[69] Two somewhat contradictory accounts of his naval career exist, and Porter is the probable source in each instance. After his three-year enlistment was over, the Connellsville boy briefly returned home and provided the local paper with this description of his tour:

Edward Porter returned last week from a long and interesting cruise on the United States Cruiser New York. He left here the beginning of June, three years ago. Going to Philadelphia, he was assigned on the 18th of the same month to the position of an assistant electrician on the vessel named which went into commission from the Cramp Navy yard on August 1st. His official position was Gunner's mate in the Dynamo Room. The ship was fitted up for a southern cruise at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, leaving for the scene of Brazil's trouble on Christmas day. The New York arrived at Rio on Jan 18th and was one of a squadron of six vessels which forced the demands of United States Admiral Bennett, allowing merchant ships from this country to land their stores on the insurgents' land. After these troubles the New York cruised among the West Indies till the middle of the following June, when she returned to New York


and took out a number of naval reserves for practice. She later performed the same service in Philadelphia for the Pennsylvania reserves, returning to the West Indies and the water of Venezuela for an extensive cruise remain[ing] there till May. The vessel and crew were then recalled to New York to prepare for the opening of the great Kell canal. After joining the review there the vessel made a cruise on the Atlantic seacoast of our country, went into winter quarters at Hampton Roads and in May returned to New York bay where the largest fleet ever gathered in American waters was being concentrated. Our town representative on the crew has had a wide field of experience and has many incidents to relate about the scenes and people of his travels.[70]

This youthful account of Porter's adventures in the navy differs from a much later description in the Cyclopedia of American Biography , which claims that Porter "attracted the notice of his superiors by inventing a number of electrical devices to improve the naval communications service. He also assisted Bradley Allen Fiske (q.v.), later a rear admiral, in perfecting the Fiske range-finder."[71]

Porter's naval record offers a more mundane account of these years. The navy gave Porter modest rankings in seamanship (although high points in gunnery) and based him, for the last year at least, in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a landsman. Although no notice of Porter's contributions to naval technology is to be found in his record, his work in the electrical field is credible, given his earlier accomplishments and later interests. Such work must have kept him in touch with Edison business associates. A cruise to Central and South America may help to explain Porter's later travels in that area as an exhibitor during 1896-97. The navy also altered Porter's personal life and habits. Although he maintained ties with friends and family, he no longer thought of western Pennsylvania as a place to work and live. Financial realities—his bankruptcy and $16 a month in naval pay—meant that Porter had to go where opportunity beckoned. He ended up trusting his future to his boyhood hero Thomas Edison and moving pictures.


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