How Thomas Edison Was Responsible For Annie Oakley's Acting Career

Humans have a way of taking real people from the past, usually those with great skills or who have done amazing deeds, and turning them into folk heroes remembered within cultures for decades or centuries after their deaths. Annie Oakley has become one such folk hero of the old American west.

Oakley earned her mythic status with guns in her hands and charm in her character. According to JSTOR, it was her Victorian sensibilities that wrote her name in the book of everlasting fame when other wild west performers of a similar caliber were swept under the sands of time. That old-fashioned charm wouldn't have drawn in crowds on its own, however. For that, she had her dead-eye accuracy while sighting down the barrel of a firearm. She wasn't dubbed "Little Sure Shot" by Sitting Bull for nothing, and her talents got her noticed by everyone, including the famed inventor Thomas Edison, who would put Oakley on film for the very first time.

Before the movies

Before motion pictures ever became a thing, the people needed something else to keep them entertained. Throughout much of human existence, plays and other theatrical performances were the go-to. In the United States during the late 1800s, when Annie Oakley was a popular performer, wild west shows were a popular way to get the family out of the house for some wholesome, gunpowder-filled fun.

Oakley got her start as a teenager known to be an extremely successful hunter. She went on to beat a well-known marksman in a shooting competition, later performing with him, and then subsequently marrying the man, as Buffalo Bill Center of the West explains. From there, Oakley and her husband, Frank Butler, would join a circus as a performing duo, and later sign with Wild Bill Cody's Wild West Show.

Wild Bill Cody's Show was the most famous of its time, and being a performing member of that troop was something akin to movie stardom of the modern age. The performers could only be seen during live shows, of course, but Thomas Edison would change all of that before the 20th century rolled around. Not just for Annie Oakley, but for the world.

How Edison got Oakley on camera

Thomas Edison had a powerful talent for designing what were likely first considered futuristic devices. He probably invented some of them too, but there are plenty of sceptics out there who think he stole many of his ideas. Even if that were the case, he was famous long before his legacy was taught to school children. Famous enough that even Wild Bill Cody's Wild West Show had worked with the inventor in Paris during an entertainment event commemorating the centennial for the French Revolution, according to PBS. That's where Edison and Oakley linked up. The Wild West troupe was performing while Edison was showing off his famous phonograph.

Oakley wasn't having the best time in Paris. She'd been forced to use French gunpowder, which didn't have the same power as the American product. Out of frustration, she asked the inventor if he'd could create an electric firearm, probably so she wouldn't have to deal with French gunpowder ever again. He didn't (or we'd likely be using them today), but he'd remember Oakley and invite her, later on, to give a private performance so he could test out his new kinetograph, a device he'd developed for recording long strings of images.

Edison was not only able to record the fragments of shattering glass from the targets Oakley expertly dispatched, but his device was also able to capture the detailed wisps of smoke rising from the barrels of her guns. His primitive "movies" were a remarkable technical achievement for the times.

One of America's first movie stars

As is made abundantly clear from Annie Oakley's IMDb profile — yes, even she has an IMDb profile — movie stars in the beginning didn't need to be featured in the vast number of films that's common with the stars of today trying to achieve some level of fame and recognition. There just wasn't the same catalog of films at the turn of the 20th century as there are now. In fact, there were hardly any films at all.

The world didn't have a way to view motion pictures until Thomas Edison and William Dickson invented the kinetoscope in 1891 (via Britannica). Edison had recorded his first images, or what together could be considered a movie, of Oakley and other members of the Wild Bill Cody troupe on his kinetograph, but as PBS notes, he had yet to invent the kinetoscope — a practical device for viewing his productions. He didn't actually have a way to play back the movies he'd recorded at the time he'd recorded them. Once those viewing devices hit the market, the public was all set to walk down the path to movie mania. And among the first short films available on the kinetoscope showed Annie Oakley shooting targets, making her one of the very first movie stars around. You can check it out for yourself — the Library of Congress has posted it on YouTube.