Happy 125th Birthday, Cinema! Part 2

In Part 1 we heard how the Lathams were behind a movie camera that left those of Edison and the Lumière Brothers looking very limited. Now we find out what happened when they beat those two firms to the screen…

The Plan Comes Together

So, the Lambda camera had advantages over both the Edison and Lumière versions – but what was the benefit? Well, it meant they could put much longer, larger loads of film in and therefore shoot without stopping. Instead of 17 seconds of a dance, you could see the whole thing. Instead of a truncated round of boxing in a miniaturised ring, you could film several rounds played out in a full-sized one. You could record outdoor events or perhaps a play – and see it in widescreen with more natural-looking movement. If it all worked, that is.

With Woodville Latham laid up in bed, Otway and Lauste ran a technical test of the new camera at the end of February 1895, with Dickson coming along to help. It was a success. Whilst improving on the camera, they also carried on developing a projector, in which the film would move continuously, as in the Kinetoscope.

Lathams Lauste at Frankfort St with Eidoloscope - 2500 Years - Will Day book edit

The 35 Frankfort St. workshop. From Right: Otway Latham, Gray Latham, Eugene Lauste. On the left, looking out of the window: Woodville Latham

By April, Edison’s business manager, William Gilmore, had got wind of Dickson’s association and challenged him over it. Affronted, Dickson told Edison that he had to choose between Gilmore and himself. Edison opted for Gilmore and Dickson’s glittering career in West Orange was abruptly over.

That same month, the Lambda team were excited and confident enough to bring a journalist to the workshop to reveal what they were up to. They showed a film taken up on the roof showing Lauste’s son Emile messing about with a workshop assistant whilst Lauste senior, Gray and Woodville Latham looked on. The projection was only about “the size of a sash window” but the journalist was most struck by the realistic movement of the smoke from Woodville’s pipe.

Panoptikon sketch from New York Sun Latham

A sketch from the article in the New York Sun

Edison expressed his outrage to the reporter at what he termed “a fraud”. Woodville Latham riposted in print, “If Mr. Edison can project pictures of moving objects on a screen, as he says he can, why does he not do it as publicly as I have done, and do it at once?”. But Edison couldn’t and he knew it. Undeterred, the team moved fast.

Sketches of series of frames of Griffo-Barnett fight Eidoloscope The_Brooklyn_Daily_Eagle_Wed__May_8__1895_ p4 cleaned

Sketches of series of frames from the Griffo-Barnett film

On May 4th they filmed a four-round boxing bout between the Australian “Young Griffo” (Albert Griffiths) and “Battling” Charles Barnett of New York City on the roof of Madison Square Garden in front of an audience of twenty-five and anyone watching from the adjacent Park Avenue and Waldorf hotels.  Otway Latham and Dickson were on camera duty. They shot continuously for twelve minutes and the results were as good as they had hoped.

Up until now, their system had not had a name but now they came up with something suitably exotic and scientific-sounding: The Eidoloscope. As I recounted in a blogpost, this was the title of a widely published 1890 story by an early science fiction writer, about a machine that can project images of the past. The camera, in turn, was called the Eidolograph.


The First Public Film Show

Bryan L. Kennelly real estate office in the Haight Building, 156 Broadway, New York City, June 7, 1914 from dcmny.org

156 Broadway in 1914. The building still stands.

They rented a storefront at 156 lower Broadway and on Monday May 20th, 125 years ago, they officially opened the doors to the public. In fact, it seems they had a test run two days earlier, with Otway signing his name on the first 25¢ ticket sold. They did little promotion, probably for lack of resources, but the punters came and engaged vocally with what they saw on screen, as if at the ringside. For this had the look and feel of real boxing rather than the artificial play-acting of the Edison bouts.

Dickson’s former employer would not have been pleased with the news reports declaring “EDISON IS NOT IN IT – Kinetoscope Outclassed by Prof Latham’s Newest” and stressing how much better it was than watching tiny, brief sequences whilst getting a crick in your neck.

roadsheet for the Latham eidoloscope, dated May 1895. Image and date courtesy of Ryan Lintelman and the Smithsonian Insitute's National Museum of American History edited - lower qualityWithin a short time, they also filmed one of the first pieces of actuality, entitled “The Sidewalks of New York”, which showed “an Italian grinding away at a hand-organ, children dancing, boys playing craps etc”. The title was also that of a popular song and when projected it was accompanied by music.

This was followed by film of a popular horse race, the Suburban Handicap (Robert Paul would have a huge hit the next year with the 1896 Derby). Then they filmed some wrestling matches and a popular vaudeville act, the Nichols Sisters, doing their acrobatic dance routine.

All of the Eidoloscope films appear to be lost. The only traces ever published are a few tattered fragments of a single second of a wrestling match. However, I recently unearthed a sequence of twenty frames of the Nichols sisters, published in a general interest magazine for women. Now I’m a strong believer that even tiny fragments of film can tell you a lot more when you see them in motion, so I set about re-animating this sequence. It appears to be the “kiss-off” at the end of their act:

I have reproduced the film at 25fps, but suspect it was shot slightly faster than that. Obviously, the image quality is only that of magazine reproduction, but nonetheless one has an immediate sense of how fluid and stable the camera was and the possibilities of the wider frame, compared with the cramped choreography for the Kinetoscope. Indeed, the fragments of the wrestling bout also pay testament to the faster running speeds and steady framing of the Eidolograph.

Problems, Problems, Problems

Film strip from Eidoloscope Latham - poss wrestling on rooftop

One of two wrestling bouts filmed in July 1895

But the truth is, whilst the Eidolograph camera seems to have done a great job, the same cannot be said of either the Eidoloscope projector or the Lathams themselves.

Although their projection system could handle long running films, it only allowed the briefest flashes of each frame, as the film was in continuous motion. That made it an enormous challenge to get enough light on the screen. Like Edison, they were wedded to the wonder of the age: electric light. But electricity could not be had everywhere, and supplies varied from street to street and moment to moment. Early reports of the arrival of the Eidoloscope in various US cities frequently mention issues around electrical supply.

But technical problems could be resolved with the right leadership – and that was not the forte of Otway or Gray Latham who fancied themselves as playboys and were perhaps more drawn to the high life than hard business. Their management had been chaotic. Despite a generous share offer, Dickson did not throw his lot in with the Lathams. Instead, he took Lauste with him to become part of a new project, which would become known as the Mutoscope and Biograph. Enoch Rector and Samuel Tilden chose to go their own way. New finance was found and a new company formed, but now the Lathams were no longer directors, just employees. The Eidoloscope did get around to several cities, but there were not enough regular new films to retain interest, nor the contacts to get in the best places. Despite improvements to the projector, the system disappeared after being bought up by the Vitagraph Company in 1897.

What Could Have Been

Edison meanwhile had continued to flail and fail at the issue of projecting films for a year after the launch of the Eidoloscope. In the end, with the Lumières coming over the horizon hoping to clean up in the market, he bought in the “Phantoscope” projector invented by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat (whose decades-long conflict is another wonderful story), with which they had been projecting Edison films in late 1895. It was rebadged as “The Edison Vitascope” and launched in New York in April 1896, with the Eidoloscope and Cinématographe as direct competition in New York’s major music halls.

Birth of the Movies - 40 years since Vitascope premiere - many pics and docs - Motion Picture Herald April 25 1936 p15 #3

An artist’s imaginative impression of the premiere of the (not really) Edison Vitascope

There’s a key detail of what happened in the lead-up to that launch which is not much noted but fascinates me as a filmmaker. Raff & Gammon, the Kinetoscope agents who had brought the Phantoscope to Edison and sealed the deal for its exploitation, prevailed upon Armat to adapt the system to a wider film format, as the theatre owners were all complaining that the current picture format was too narrow – more than likely, they had seen an Eidoloscope show.

Armat countered that, although not difficult to do, it would take time to reconfigure the projector and since speed was of the essence in beating the Lumières to market Stateside, such changes would have to wait for later. It would be a very long wait. Ironically, the Edison team had, by then, built widescreen cameras: for Enoch Rector who had maintained good relations there and now had his own project on the go.

Torn Lumiere film

Why you need that loop: torn sprockets on a Lumière film

Meanwhile, the Lumière brothers, who would proclaim the originality of their invention to their dying days, had done a remarkably unoriginal thing. Starting, like the Lathams, with a blank page onto which they could have drawn any format of picture and any gauge of film – as it was being manufactured to order – funnily enough settled on a 35mm film width and a 1.33:1 picture ratio. The only divergence was to have one pair of round perforations per frame instead of four pairs of square ones. It was evident that from the very start they had an eye to maximum compatibility with the Edison system. Indeed, within months of the launch of the Cinématographe, their films were also being offered for sale in Edison format.

It’s fascinating to consider what would have happened if the Lathams had done better with the Eidoloscope or if Raff & Gammon had twisted Armat’s arm a bit harder. But hasty decisions driven by the desire for market dominance led to us looking at boxy pictures in cinemas and in the home for an entire century.

It would be some years before cameras carrying loads of 1000 or 2000 feet of film came into use, well after the Eidolograph had disappeared. It would take the firm arrival of sound in the late 1920s before standardised shooting speeds matched how the Nichols Sisters were filmed. And it was not until the 1950s that widescreen imagery was widely seen.

But if you paid your 25 cents at 156 Broadway on 20th May 1895, you could already have it all.

Peter Domankiewicz

First night ad for Eidoloscope at Boston Museum - The_Boston_Globe_Tue__Jun_23__1896_

Ad for the Eidoloscope in June 1896

If you are an academic or other researcher who would like the citations for these articles, please contact me at info@friesegreene.com

Happy 125th Birthday, Cinema! Part 1

This is going to be an epic ride, so strap in. But it’s a birthday worth celebrating, I promise.

It’s Not Them – Or Him

If people know anything at all about how cinema began, they usually assume it was something to do with Edison or the Lumière brothers. Come December 28th this year we’ll see a rash of articles about the first Lumière show in the basement of a Paris café, 125 years ago.

But the first time people paid money to sit in a darkened room and watch movies projected on a screen wasn’t there or then.

And if people have a picture of what those first, crude movies were like, they visualise a rather boxy frame, the films moving too fast at modern speeds and lasting only about a minute.

But that isn’t how it began or how it was supposed to be. The cinema we eventually arrived at could have been had from the start.

So, I guess you’re wondering: if the Lumières didn’t start the ball rolling, who did? Don’t worry, we’ll get there. It involves a pair of chancers, their disgraced professor dad and a couple of disgruntled Edison employees.

Forget about this. Don’t even look at it. I mean it. Stop!

The Story So Far

So, it’s 1894. Early moving picture inventor/experimenters such as William Friese-Greene, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Georges Demenÿ and Louis le Prince have all crashed and burned in a variety of ways. Last man standing, by dint of financial muscle, is the industrial inventor Thomas Edison and his team. The real brains behind Edison’s operation is William Dickson, who’s now getting frustrated by the lack of credit and imagination at the West Orange works.

After several years of experimentation, they’ve gradually advanced from the utterly impractical idea of recording pinpoint images on a cylinder to following the lead of Marey and Friese-Greene and shooting on a strip of celluloid. These films are to be shown in “Kinetoscopes” – boxes containing loops of film, which are viewed by bending over and looking into a slot. The films are vivid, but are only around 17 seconds long, with very small images. The customer pays per film (or group of films), each seen in a separate Kinetoscope.

The first “Kinetoscope Parlor” opens in New York in April 1894 and they roll out across the US, lapping at European shores in the autumn of the year, the smell of money to be made attracting the attention of Robert Paul in Britain, a certain Antoine Lumiere in France, whose two sons are part of his successful photographic company, and a pair of German brothers in the business of projected entertainment named Skladanowsky.

Kinetoscope parlour in Chicago

An early Kinetoscope parlor. Not the most comfy arrangement for viewing a film.

Back in the USA, Otway Latham, a young, New York based, pharmaceutical salesman from a Virginia family, jumps decisively into the Kinetoscope business in May 1894.

Otway and Gray Latham portrait
Otway and Gray Latham. Pretty smooth guys.

He brings with him his brother Gray, engineer Enoch Rector (a college friend who works for the same company), and his father Woodville Latham whose tenure as Professor of Chemistry, Physics and Agriculture at West Virginia University was troubled, to say the least, and who has since been job-hopping around the States. Bankrolling their nascent business is Samuel Tilden Jr., the owner of said pharmaceutical company.

Otway has a vision for how boxing films could get the money rolling in. A series of miniaturised bouts for his Kinetoscopes does well, but the duration is completely inadequate so he lobbies Edison to come up with an enlarged machine that can at least show a whole minute. The expanded Kinetoscopes which show a series of one-minute boxing rounds are a success, but it’s glaringly obvious to Otway, as it was to so many, that projection is the way to go to really make money from motion pictures. But Edison firmly resists this development, seeing it as a dime-collecting, pay-per-play novelty box.

Woodville Latham portrait
Woodville Latham

So the story goes, Otway asked his scientifically minded father if he thought it was possible to project these films onto a screen, who replied that it absolutely was and set to work figuring out how.

A Plan Is Hatched

During the development of the expanded kinetoscope, Otway had spent plenty of time at the Edison works and had made a point of befriending William Dickson. Unsurprisingly, he tried to draw Dickson into their scheme. Dickson knew that any direct assistance by him could be viewed as “treachery” by Edison but at the same time he too was itching to get the films up on a screen, so he did informally advise.

One of his most important recommendations was that they employ Eugene Lauste, an excellent mechanic who had worked for Edison – although not on the Kinetoscope project – until being fired in 1892. They did, setting up a workshop at 35 Frankfort St, where Lauste also slept.

Young Dickson self-portrait
William Dickson having a Napoleonic moment

Possibly as a precaution to stay under the Edison radar, they didn’t incorporate this new business in New York but back in Richmond, Virginia. They named it the “Lambda Company” after the first letter (in Greek) of their name. All three Lathams were directors.

They could have simply developed a projection machine and then commissioned films to be made for it at West Orange, as they had with the boxing films, but they made an important creative and technical decision to take a different route. They decided to also design a camera and with it an entire new approach.

Only a handful of trusted people had ever seen the insides of the Edison Kinetograph camera and only one existed. The patent for it was still unpublished and Dickson was certainly not going to risk his neck by sharing details. So, the technical team of Woodville Latham, Lauste and Rector had to dream up their own.

The Kinetoscope films had a high running speed of around 40-45fps (frames per second). Making a camera work that fast was a considerable challenge and both the Lumières and Robert Paul & Birt Acres would drop to just a third of that – around 15-16fps. Nonetheless, the Lambda team sought to match it, or at least approach it.

The Edison camera was so big and heavy it could not move outside the funny little studio where it was housed. But the Lambda one would go out and about from the very start.

Gauging The Gauge

Butterfly Dance Edison
An early Kinetoscope film, showing the 1.33:1 format

What we now refer to as “35mm film” is still, near as dammit, what Dickson cooked up in 1892. Earlier experiments had all involved circular images but now he had adopted a modest rectangle: a 3:4 or 1.33:1 ratio, depending how you look at it. Dickson never explained his reasons for choosing this and endless theorising has ensued down the years. In the end it would become standardised and known as “The Academy Ratio”, with slight modifications. Then, when television became commercially viable, the boxy 1.33:1 ratio was transferred there.

Some contemporary filmmakers, such as Andrea Arnold, idolise the Academy Ratio as having special powers, but many others, including myself, find it profoundly limiting and not very aesthetically pleasing. It’s a huge relief to me that the TV and cinema standards are now for wider images, which better reflect the human visual field. Of course, in the early decades of cinema great cinematographers did wonderful things within those limitations, but few modern cinematographers long to return to them, beyond the occasional foray.

Starting with a blank sheet of paper, the Lambda team decided that a larger, wider image was needed for projected film. By increasing the height of each frame slightly whilst making the film 51mm wide, they doubled the picture area, which meant twice the picture quality and twice the amount of light getting through onto a screen. When commercial film shows started in earnest in 1896, the low resolution and dimness of the images would be common criticisms.

But it wasn’t just the quality improvement: the pictures were a radically different format. The projected image had a 1.85:1 ratio, which true cinema nerds will know is the standard, most commonly used “widescreen” ratio of cinema films today – a situation only arrived at after many years of flux. It is also very close to the 16:9 of modern TV.

Picture ratios

The most common picture ratios – from Cinemascope to boxy old TV

Looping The Loop

They didn’t stop there.

There was another major issue, which would hamper the early development of the film industry. The longest film the Edison equipment handled was 150ft, lasting one minute. The Cinématographe, which the Lumières were developing at the same time, could turn 50 feet of film into 50 seconds of screen time, by dropping the running speed, but its design was incapable of handling large loads of film, and significantly greater lengths were unthinkable.

The Lambda team solved the problem off the block. Now this involves a tiny bit of techno-geekery to explain, but I’ll try to make it painless.

As each frame of film goes through the camera or projector, it has to be jerked down into place, held and exposed, then jerked away again as the next frame comes down. And that’s happening many times a second. Now, in early equipment, when the film was jerked down into place, the mechanism was pulling against the whole reel of film that was sitting in there. If your reel is only 50ft (15m) that’s not much weight, so it’s not a big deal. But how are you going to move a modern 1000 ft roll, which weighs a couple of Kilos? The inertia is so great that the film would snap or the sprocket holes rip, or the mechanism would break.

Detail of Latham US patent showing loops in colour
“The Loop” from Woodville Latham’s 1896 projector patent

The answer was surprisingly simple. Whilst one frame is being exposed, feed out the length of the next frame ready, so all you have to pull down is a single frame, weighing a mere 2g or so. Woodville Latham would later embody this principle in a patent, which became known as the “Latham loop”, the rights to which would be bought and sold and fought over in court battles for an extraordinary fifteen years.

But was it really his idea? William Dickson was later very clear in attributing the credit for the idea to Eugene Lauste. Lauste wholeheartedly endorsed this version of events. But perhaps neither of these Edison ex-workers were being completely honest.

In June 1889, as regular readers will know, William Friese-Greene and Mortimer Evans took out a patent for a motion picture camera which would later be widely reported in the USA as well as Britain. By the April of 1890 we know that Dickson was fully acquainted with its particulars and had his own copy of the patent, which he later shared with some collaborators. The patent clearly describes the loop and its uses, whilst articles about the camera homed in on this as one its cleverest features: that whilst one frame was being exposed, a loop of film was paid out which was the exact length for the next frame.

Given that Dickson and Lauste were close and would work together on many projects across decades of their lives, it stretches credulity a very long way to assert that the idea of “the loop” was invented by the Lambda team, rather than acquired from existing sources. It is one of many misnomers of early film history that everyone still talks of “The Latham Loop” instead of “The Friese-Greene Loop”.

FG Machine Camera interior - Mr Friese Greene and his inventions Pt1 - Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly July 8 1909 p416 edit

The Friese-Greene 1889 camera which already embodied “The Loop”

In Part 2 you’ll find out how they staged the first public film show ever and see one of their films in motion for the first time in over 120 years. Go on: you’ll bloody love it.

Sci-Fi Movies Before Celluloid

[ NOTE: If you would like to watch/listen to a “blogcast” of this post, click HERE ]

Years before H.G. Wells introduced us to his time traveller and marauding Martians, another writer was predicting what science might bring us in the future, for good or for ill. Once read on both sides of the Atlantic, he’s now all but forgotten. His name was Robert Duncan Milne and he was seeing moving pictures before there was even a strip of celluloid.

From Reality to Fantasy

Robert Duncan Milne photo editMilne was born in Cupar in Scotland to a well-to-do family, the son of a minister, and received a fine education. But having shown talent for the Classics, he dropped out of Oxford University, and in 1868 he took the bold step of heading to America, all the way to the burgeoning state of California and a life of adventure.

After some years as a cook, a labourer and an itinerant shepherd, truly living the life of the New West, he re-emerged as an inventor in 1874, patenting a number of ideas, one of which seemed set to make him rich. It didn’t.

The next we know of him, he had morphed into a journalist and writer, contributing accounts of his roaming experiences in a well-respected publication, The Argonaut, which would be his literary home for many years, based as it was in the city that became his adopted physical home: San Francisco. Connected up to the east coast by the Pacific Railroad in 1869, its population would double over the following 20 years. Then, as now, it was a place for innovation and new thinking. Milne’s mind was in tune with this.

Maintaining the same documentary style, Milne began to write stories which were wildly imaginative and rich with new science. Often framed as if they were occurrences he had witnessed or encountered through his circle of acquaintance, they would include tales of global interconnected communication systems, a drone strike on San Francisco, surveillance culture and an ability to see the past through moving pictures.

Muybridge 1876

Muybridge in 1876

In 1881 he published The Paleoscopic Camera in which he encounters a photographer named Millbank, whilst visiting the beautiful church of San Xavier del Bac in Arizona, near the Mexican border. Millbank has made an extraordinary discovery: used the right way, his photographic system can capture images of the past, from the resonances of light energy in the walls. Putting his head under the camera’s black cloth the writer sees years of events shooting past in fast time-lapse: images that Millbank can photograph.

Millbank is described as “a rather tall and slightly stooping figure, in a loose blue serge jacket and a slouched hat surmounting a bronzed and heavily-bearded face.” Although based in San Francisco, he has been “travelling here and there in Mexico and Central America”. For anybody well-versed in pre-cinema developments loud bells will now be ringing about a real person who fits this description very well: Eadweard Muybridge.

Muybridge’s sequence images of animals and human beings in motion are iconic, but he already had a powerful reputation as a photographer who could capture what others couldn’t. Having been acquitted of the murder of his wife’s lover on the extraordinary grounds of justifiable homicide at the start of 1875, Muybridge disappeared into Central America for a long time, later exhibiting the images he captured. It was in the five years after his return to San Francisco that he took the first of his famous sequences, sponsored by Leland Stanford (who was closely associated with The Argonaut) and then created a way to project them with his “Zoopraxiscope”.

640px-Eadweard_Muybridge-Sallie_Gardner_1878It seems highly likely that Milne had witnessed one of his illustrated lectures, possibly even spent time with Muybridge, and would have been well aware of his story. But even though Muybridge was just capturing short cycles of motion, Milne saw the possibilities of photography capturing history in living detail.

A Secret Uncovered

It was a subject that Milne would return to in more prescient detail eight years later when the story The Eidoloscope appeared in the same publication. Here the narrator encounters an inventor he knows: Mr. Espy, who has a lonely display table in the Paris Exposition. He claims to have a device that can play back visual scenes from the past the same way a phonograph can play back an audio recording. Although sceptical, the narrator finds himself bored over Christmas in a friend’s country house and so calls on Mr. Espy to give a demonstration – resulting in a terrible secret being revealed. In this case all the images are seen running in reverse as they move back in time, like a film on rewind.

I have done a decent audio recording of the story to save your eyes from the tiny print of the original, which can be found below. The first half is mainly full of the “science” of Espy’s device and the drama is more in the second half, so I won’t be deeply hurt if you skip forward to 19.18.

Milne could not have chosen a more apposite setting for encountering Mr. Espy. The Paris  Exposition Universelle of 1889, in retrospect, reveals itself as an extraordinary confluence of those who first sought to capture motion with photography and those who would take it forward.

Edison had an impressive display there and headed over from New York in August to spend a month in the city. Back in Orange, New Jersey, his workers were still trying and failing to record micro-photographs on a cylinder (akin to the phonograph). But in Paris he spent time with Jules-Etienne Marey who had used paper film and early celluloid-like material to capture his “chronophotographic” sequences. On his return Edison ordered that they now start experimenting with rolls of film and so began work towards the Kinetoscope.

Paris Exposition 1889 posterBut that wasn’t all. Also featured at the exposition was the Electrical Tachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz with its short but incredibly vivid moving picture sequences, which Edison’s workers would also experiment with. Whilst in Paris Edison was a guest of honour at a dinner to celebrate 50 years of photography with other attendees that not only included Marey but also Antoine, Auguste and Louis Lumière – who would be his direct rivals six years hence.

At the exposition at that very same time was another visitor, probably unknown to all of the above: William Friese-Greene. Quite aside from the brand new Eiffel Tower, scientific exhibits to see, the photographic congress and the pleasures of Paris, William had another reason to feel excited and happy. Having completed the prototype of a moving picture film camera a month or two previously, he had taken out a provisional patent along with his collaborator – a civil engineer, Mortimer Evans. As he took in the sights, back in London the scientific instrument makers Légé & Co were already working on the Mark II – a camera with a larger capacity and faster running speed, which would be ready in September.

From Fantasy to Reality

So Milne’s instincts were good. And even if his vision of a way of not only recording the present for the future but also capturing the past, has not yet been realised, there is one way that his story – which was reproduced in many publications – did leave an indelible mark on the future of film.

The first people to create a film camera and projector system with which they shot films and showed them to a paying public were not the Lumière brothers. Yes, you read me right: there was nothing about the premiere of the Lumière Cinématographe on the 28th December 1895 which constituted a significant first or the start of the film industry. That honour belongs to a group of people which included Woodville Latham and his two sons, plus the former Edison moving picture workers William Dickson and Eugene Lauste. They began their public film shows in New York in May 1895, which moved out to many American cities.

When the first results were shown to the press it was called a “Panopticon” (or “Pantoptikon”) but this was a confusingly overused word already applied to various forms of entertainment, including the magic lantern. Over the following weeks they searched around for an appropriately impressive name to launch it upon the world at large.

They found it, christening their projector “The Eidoloscope”. Milne must have been pleased.

If you’d like to know more about Robert Duncan Milne and his stories, start HERE.

For everything in the universe about Eadweard Muybridge, The Compleat Muybridge really is.

Milne 2 vol set-01

The only published volumes about Robert Duncan Milne and reproducing his stories


That Eureka Moment – 1

Every story of an inventor needs its “Eureka!” Moment where the forces of the universe combine with sleepless slog to generate the breakthrough that he/she has been striving for. In the 1951 film about William Friese-Greene, The Magic Box, this is depicted in a famous sequence where the sweating, pop-eyed, near-hysterical inventor drags a policeman off the street in the middle of the night to witness the first projection of moving pictures, with the PC believing he is about to hear the confession of a madman at the scene of a terrible crime. d74226e3ac9aeb93a535628fed01bb68--robert-donat-robert-richard

Robert Donat is absolutely wonderful in it, perfectly capturing the agony and ecstasy of invention, and Laurence Olivier does a lovely cameo turn as the wary constable. It is in fact a marvellous movie scene, a bit of a classic even.

Pity then, that it’s a load of rubbish.

As any pedantic film historian will tell you; that device he’s using was not created until after the time the scene theoretically takes place (in 1889) and was originally patented by a collaborator of Friese-Greene as a stereoscopic (3D) camera (although Friese-Greene later patented something VERY similar and said it could be used as a projector, but that’s another story). Also, how did he turn a negative film into a positive film to project? And Friese-Greene himself never even told a story about doing his first projection to a policeman. It all seems like Chinese Whispers across 60 years.

Announcement of FG at Chester Convention BJP p382 June 13 1890Early film historians would have it that his Eureka Moment should have been a demonstration before the Photographic Convention in Chester in the June of 1890 where he was to exhibit his motion picture camera, along with strips of film shot with it, and project said film with a new kind of “lantern”. However, these same historians would go on to assert that contemporary reports reveal it to have been a humiliating failure and that after that date there is no record of him projecting motion pictures. So, therefore he never had that Eureka Moment.

Was his Chester Convention turn really such a failure? Did he not project anything? That is the subject for another blog post. But one thing is clear: if it had been a resounding success, then the world would have heard about it. It would also have been quite extraordinary that one man beat Edison’s team, with all their massive resources by three whole years, in terms of successfully shooting on celluloid film, and beat the Lumières, with their considerable resources, by five years in terms of projection.

So is that it? No Eureka Moment?

Let’s rewind. There is no question that by 1890, Friese-Greene had been grappling with the issue of capturing motion in a camera and then synthesising it through projection for quite some years. This began with magic lantern experiments with John Rudge back in Bath from 1880 and carried on in a variety of forms. In spring 1889 Friese-Greene is to be found at the Crystal Palace Photographic Exhibition demonstrating a large, clockwork-driven, twin-lens projector which can rapidly display a long series of photographic slides to create a semblance of motion. It’s unwieldy in size and not entirely successful.

But by June he has moved on decisively and taken out the provisional patent for a single-lens camera that can record motion on an intermittently-moving strip of film. The working camera is ready on September 26th. He’s confident enough in its worth to buy out Mortimer Evans, the engineer who worked with him on it, for the princely sum of £200 – that’s £24,000 in today’s money – just one month later.Letter from Mortimer Evans granting patent rights to FG

Of course, at this moment, the only rolls of film are paper negative, but word has already reached British shores of the Eastman celluloid films that are coming. Furthermore, Friese Greene has been visiting the impressive Paris Exposition over the summer and, apart from taking in the newly-built Eiffel Tower, was no doubt also getting eyeful of the “Balagny” celluloid film shown there, now being produced in rolls of up to 4 metres by 40cm for photographers – much of it from the Lumière factory. So he knows it’s just a question of time before longer, narrower, more flexible rolls start coming in from the United States – which will be exactly what he needs for his camera.

They hit the British market in February 1890 and within days he is showing off his new invention to the world. Within weeks he has not only shot long strips of celluloid with it, he’s already handing these around at photographic societies. But how is he going to create a positive from the negative – which is what one needs, to do a screening – and how is that positive film going to be projected?

The Chester Convention that summer was where one might have hoped to find the answers, but the official records don’t provide them. (Sorry, you’ll have to wait for that other blog post.)

Although he moved on to work with another engineer, Frederick Varley, and they showed off a new camera that autumn  – a stereoscopic one – along with film shot with it, still there was no word of projection and then….


On the face of it, Friese-Greene had been doing very well. His chain of photographic studios had been expanding, he’d photographed royalty, he was all over the photographic journals and the international press, his Opal Card Company had been launched with much fanfare and funds. But he had spent all of his profits and considerably more on inventing and, in a very Dickensian way, his debtors had been circling and all descended at once. His financial carcass was picked clean and suddenly all press reports of him stopped.

Cover of Auction catalogue - sale of FG goods 7 Feb 1891_crOn February 7th 1891 – just 10 months since his first camera was featured in Scientific American, 3 months since opening his latest photographic studio and 10 weeks since he showed off his latest motion picture camera in public – he has all of his worldly belongings sold at auction to pay off debts. EVERYTHING; from the finest porcelain to his copies of The Photographic News. Even the two custom lanterns (projectors) he bought from his early mentor John Rudge to create movement through photographic slides, plus that big, expensive projector he had shown at Crystal Palace less than two years before. It’s doubtful these bizarre latter items got much interest from a crowd looking to snap up some quality carpets and furniture at bargain basement prices.

Days later he is up in court, facing the lawyers of the Electricity Company alongside another former business partner, Esme Collings (Friese-Greene championed the use of electric light for portrait photography). In June, bankruptcy proceedings begin against the Opal Card Company, of which he is the Managing Director. His personal bankruptcy proceedings follow soon after. Having had to divest himself of most of his studios, his Christmas present is the winding-up of the Opal Card Company and the final totting up of his personal affairs, which is published both nationally and, for double humiliation, in his home town of Bristol: “The unsecured debts are returned at £2,153, with available assets nil.” He was a quarter of a million down, in today’s terms.

The Friese-Greene household has to downsize rapidly and dramatically. They move into a house on the Kings Road, which becomes a home upstairs and a photographic studio downstairs, with a basement which could be used for something. Only his more financially astute wife Helena is allowed to have her name on the business. She employs him as her manager on a salary of £2 per week. That’s about on a par with a Deliveroo driver, which is to say; barely making the minimum wage. William Friese-Greene is broke and broken.

Or is he?

The story continues HERE

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That Friese-Greene feeling

Hi. Before we get too deep into all this, how about a beer first? In fact, how about a FRIESE-GREENE ALE? I mean, anyone who has had a beer named after them must be important in some way, right? So what exactly is it that William Friese-Greene did that earned him this quaffable tribute and why was this beer launched as part of a festival of silent film in Bristol?

Perhaps the “South-West Silents” website has some light to shed. Well, they say:

“Born in Bristol on 7th September 1855, William Edward Green (the Friese-Greene was added later) is classed by many as one of the founding fathers of British Cinema and a key figure in the early development of cinematography as a whole. In some circles he is celebrated, while in others he is damned for filing patents on devices he allegedly didn’t invent.”

FG Beer #3Basically, at one time he was patriotically championed as THE inventor of motion pictures, a British-sized Edison, whilst for the last sixty years he has tended to be viewed as a scientifically incompetent con-artist who is about as responsible for the birth of cinema as your Gran is for the birth of hip-hop.

The person most responsible for the myth-making is Will Day, a friend of William Friese-Greene during his later life, self-appointed torch-bearer after his death in 1921, and the first significant archivist of the early days of what we have come to call “cinema”. Then, in the other corner of the ring, is Brian Coe, who chose the centenary of Friese-Greene’s birth to lead the charge against the myth created by a poorly-researched biography and the movie made from it – “The Magic Box”. Brian Coe became a leading historian of photography, Curator of the Kodak Museum and a key figure in MOMI – the late-lamented Museum of the Moving Image – so people paid a lot of attention to him and continue to do so.

And then there was me.

I was just minding my own business really, living in Bristol in the early 90’s and pursuing my dream of becoming a film director, whilst engaged in assorted creative pursuits. But from time to time, I would pause in front of this discreet plaque outside a door on The Triangle in Clifton and wonder what it was all about. It sounded significant.On_this_site_W._Friese-Greene_the_inventor_of_the_moving_picture_camera_served_his_apprenticeship_as_a_photographer_from_1869-1875_small

Then I saw there was another plaque, by the Council House.  But nobody seemed to know much about this guy, despite his  having a third plaque in a cinema and another in Bath.

For some enlightenment, my first port of call was riffling through Reece Winstone’s locally published series “Bristol As It Was” – full of photos from various eras, with explanatory captions, including quite a few references to Mr F-G. So then I got hold of a copy of the only book about him – “Close-Up of an Inventor” by Ray Allister – and I was simultaneously fascinated by the person it described and doubtful of the accuracy of what this volume contained. Discovering that “Ray Allister” was actually a woman called Muriel Forth whose only other contribution to literature was a book entitled “Manners For Moderns” reinforced those doubts.

Nonetheless, this man had applied for over a hundred patents for all sorts of things – including airships, printing photos in magazines, X-rays, an advertising projection hat and a successful early form of photo-typesetting – and spent a lot of his life pursuing the dream of films in colour. He had gone from humble beginnings in the West Country to success and prominence in London, to bankruptcy and ignominy. An eternal optimist, he then went boom and bust twice more before dying in the middle of giving a speech at a meeting of film distributors. No wonder they made a movie about him – and no wonder it was a sad one. I was hooked.

A great deal of what we know about the earliest days of moving pictures comes from accounts given by the protagonists – or those who knew them – decades after the events, making it hard to be sure of the exact truth. I can empathise with them because, reaching back over twenty years in my own memory, I can’t honestly say when my obsession with Friese-Greene began, but there is no question that somewhere in there it gripped me hard.

I made the acquaintance of Andrew Kelly, who had recently set up the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. He was a film buff and published writer who had a special interest in the silent era. The Centenary of Cinema was looming in 1995 and he was looking at ways to use it to put Bristol on the map, culturally. It seemed to me that I’d rediscovered just the kind of figure who would be of use to him, but Andrew was sceptical. He explained to me that in film historical terms, to carry on with this investigation would be to kick a hornet’s nest, which had been left undisturbed for years. He pointed me towards Brian Coe’s writings. I read them and felt as sceptical about their condemnatory conclusions as I had about the biography. It seemed clear to me that the truth either lay in between or in an entirely different direction.

Andrew’s warning had merely emboldened me. I mean, in all great detective films there’s that bit where someone warns them not to investigate any further, but they do anyway, because they have to know, right? So now I was Sam Spade  in “The Maltese Falcon” crossed with Jake Gittes in “Chinatown” crossed with… a bit of a nerd.

Andrew Kelly, God bless him, quietly encouraged my madness by putting a bit of Bristol money my way to enable me to travel around to seek out Friese-Greene’s surviving family, search in the Science & Media Museum archives in Bradford and ultimately see some long-hidden materials in Paris. Accompanying me, sometimes literally, sometimes in spirit, was Stephen Herbert – another key figure in MOMI – whose very hands-on, get-back-to-the-original-sources attitude I found inspiring and related well to. So I hunted down those sources everywhere I could and tried to understand the technology, with his help.

I never did get anything ready for the Centenary of Cinema in Bristol, I was still too deep in research. My only official contribution to that commemoration was getting name-checked a couple of times in a book published by the Cinémathèque Française, as I had inadvertently by then become a bit of an expert on some rather obscure corners of cinema history and had helped out their archive a little.

Rather to my own surprise, some of the real experts in the field of early film history started to take my researches seriously and were willing to give a fair hearing to my ideas of what the true story of William Friese-Greene might be. One manifestation of this was being invited to give a lecture at a university about one aspect of my research, in front of a rather intimidating audience of people who seriously knew their stuff. This was a watershed moment – not so much because of the lecture but because a few months later it was pointed out to me that an established film historian appeared to have plagiarised what I’d said. As initiations into academia go, it was akin to being molested by your pervy uncle whilst your parents are out – and about as pleasant – but I figured it counted as an acknowledgement that I’d done some good work.

Stephen Herbert encouraged me to start to write it all down by commissioning me to write a small book about an even more obscure inventor, John Arthur Roebuck Rudge, an early collaborator with Friese-Greene who set him on the path to trying to capture life and motion. Although we got to a second draft of the book, my insistence on further research and his running out of money to publish more books about interesting but obscure people meant it never happened. But he and Luke McKernan from the BFI did get me to contribute to their excellent Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, which I’m happy to say is widely referenced on the Internet as they wisely turned it into a website.

I was also contacted by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – the standard reference work for writers – to create a new entry on William Friese-Greene for the completely fresh edition planned for 2004. It was an immense privilege and a great compliment.

Will Day

Will Day (“Mr. Accuracy”)

They sent me the previous entry to read for reference. Written in 1927, it contained loads of errors and exaggerations. I looked at the initials at the bottom and immediately knew who it was: “W.E.L.D.” – Mr. Will Day himself. It was the strangest feeling of connecting back though time.

In the end, I wrote my own film about William Friese-Greene in 2004 as part of a film development programme supported by Sony Columbia. Set in 1910 New York, the script contained nothing that was in “The Magic Box”, depicting a very different part of his story. Although I went to New York that year to research further and uncovered more fascinating information, the obsession abated as it became clear I couldn’t take that film project any further at the moment.

And it stayed in abeyance until the 14th November 2016. Leaving a fascinating talk by Kevin Brownlow at the BFI about the restoration of the magnificent French silent classic “Napoleon” (now finally on DVD and Blu-Ray) I got reminiscing about my own visits to the French film archives . The next day, for the first time in many years, I casually opened up one file on my computer from my time digging for information in New York…

I swear it was like a scene from some eighties sci-fi movie where a teenager opens up the closet to get his Bon Jovi t-shirt out and instead finds himself sucked into a spatio-temporal vortex which spits him out on the other side of the universe. For a month solid, I did little from rising in the morning to passing out in the early hours other than immerse myself deeper and deeper back into Friese-Greene, revelling in new discoveries and frustrated by the misleading ideas that are still common currency.

Over a decade ago, the great collector and historian of early British cinema, John Barnes, exhorted me to write a book about what I’d found out, even though he didn’t agree with all of my conclusions. But I always knew it would be a lot of work for virtually no financial reward – if I could even get it published, that is. But now John is gone, I feel bad about never doing it. So this blog is a first step to starting to put some of this down, in the hope that if enough people seem to be interested I may get both the motivation and the opportunity to see it through, eventually.

And to be clear: for me, this isn’t about who was first in this or that – I just think that William Friese-Greene is someone worth getting to know. In fact, I’ll drink to that. Cheers!

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A Friese-Greene Christmas Carol

If, for personal or political reasons, the imminent festivities are not exactly setting your heart aglow with joy, might I suggest that there is some perspective to be gained by considering the circumstances of the Friese-Greene family at Christmas, 1915.

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1890, William Friese-Greene had been riding high. He was the well-known owner of a highly successful chain of photographic studios, with an upmarket clientele, spending his profits on inventing. That year, he was the first person to present to the world what could be called a “Moving Picture” camera: a compact device that shot a rapid series of images on a roll of celluloid.

DSC01729edit FG and Edith

William and Edith, around 1897

The next year, he spectacularly crashed and burned. Multiple bankruptcies robbed him of his businesses, his home, his lifestyle and his reputation. He even lost control of his camera patent. But William was no quitter. Over the next five years, he built himself up again and, despite the death of his wife Helena, who had helped him through those difficult times, he relaunched himself with new inventions that brought him income and respectability. He remarried and, with his new wife, Edith, had six children in the following years – all boys.

But, as Edith would discover to her cost, life with William Friese-Greene was always a rollercoaster. Abundance, lack. Fame, shame. Optimism, disappointment. They were your bread and butter.

William had spent a great deal of the freshly-minted 20th century working on various methods of creating moving pictures in colour. In 1911 this had brought him crashing into conflict with one of the movie heavyweights of the era, Charles Urban, who believed he owned that territory, having invested a great deal in developing his successful Kinemacolor system. But Urban’s desire to squash this relatively insignificant rival proved to be a massive tactical error.

Friese-Greene Biocolour test c 1911- Kodak Collection at National Science and Media Museum Bradford

From Friese-Greene colour test film c.1911

Sympathisers got behind Friese-Greene and the conflict escalated to the High Court, then the House of Lords, both of whom agreed that the Kinemacolor patent was meaningless as it didn’t do what it claimed. Without patent protection, the bottom fell out of Urban’s business, whose value was founded on operating a monopoly. But it was the definition of a Pyrrhic victory for Friese-Greene. It was now 1915 and Britain was in the throes of the Great War. Nobody really cared about colour moving pictures, especially since these systems cost more than the monochrome alternative.

William and Edith’s eldest son, Claude – who would go on to become a renowned cinematographer – had been actively working in the film business from about 12 years old and, after leaving school at fourteen, that became his full-time occupation. In 1915, aged sixteen, Claude was also inventing in the field of colour motion pictures and already had his own business, The Aurora Film Company, which had made a film using a Friese-Greene colour process, The Earl of Camelot, that screened in Brighton, where the family had lived since 1904.

It was wartime. Claude had been in the Imperial Cadet Corps alongside his two immediately junior brothers, Kenneth and Graham, but now Lord Kitchener’s finger was pointing straight at him. He enlisted, joining the 14th London regiment. His first recorded tour of duty began on 7th February 1916 and he would go on to become part of the Cinematograph section of the Royal Flying Corps.

DSC01717edit - Edith and her five boys

Edith and her five boys

Claude’s decision inspired his younger brothers and, out of jealousy or desire for adventure or a wish to relieve the financial pressure on their parents, both Kenneth and Graham headed down to the recruiting office. Despite being significantly underage, they were allowed to sign up. This must have been devastating, heartbreaking and profoundly worrying to William and Edith.

Whether these three boys were able to be in Brighton with their parents that Christmas is not clear. But their younger siblings, Maurice and Vincent, certainly were – little Raymond having died ten years earlier, aged four, from being kicked in the head by a horse. A Christmas of Dickensian hardship was looming.

The first the world heard of their situation was a letter from Will Day, published in the film industry weekly, The Bioscope.

I have written about Will Day before. He was a well-known and easily-recognisable figure in the British film industry. His daily business was his shop, Kinutilities, in Lisle St, just behind Leicester Square in the heart of filmland, where he sold all sorts of cinema equipment and created some of his own. He was gregarious and very active within trade organisations, always dressing distinctively. But his passion was creating what is still, to date,the most extensive collection relating to the development of the moving image that any individual has ever compiled. Alongside this, he was writing a history of the subject, personally knowing many of the key figures, although he would never see it published. So, he was the kind of person who was listened to.

Will Day letter appealing for help for FG and family - The Bioscope - Thursday 23 December 1915 p71 edit

This is what Will Day wrote, on the 17th December: “I have had a visit and a letter from Mr Friese Greene, who, I am sorry to say, is in very low water indeed, and has a bailiff in possession of his home for the sum of £50 due for rent. [Multiply figures by 100 to get rough 2019 equivalents.]

Photo of Will Day from The Bioscope Thursday 30 December 1915 edit

Will Day, 1915 a.k.a. Santa Claus

I was thinking that, at this period of the year, we in the Trade, who have so much to thank Mr. Friese Greene for, could hold out the hand of help, and in his present distressful position, forget anything that may have happened in the past, and for the sake of his wife and children help him along the road.”


He offered to collect monies on behalf of the family, setting the ball rolling by saying he would put up the handsome sum of five guineas – £5 5s. It worked. Within no time at all he had persuaded various film companies to do likewise – some matching him, others giving less. Even The Bioscope threw in two guineas. And that wasn’t all the paper did.

Six years earlier, the Editor of The Bioscope had had a great deal of fun mercilessly ridiculing William Friese-Greene for asserting that, since Edison was then officially legally recognised in the USA as the inventor of moving pictures, with a right to tax all who made or showed a film, then surely he was due something, having pre-dated Edison by years. To say the paper changed its tune would be an understatement comparable to commenting that John Wayne isn’t making quite as many movies as he used to.

Portrait of FG that Will Day kept on his desk in golden frame - from CF edit

A portrait of William Friese-Greene in a gilt frame, which Will Day would later keep on his desk, after the inventor’s death

The week after Will Day’s letter, the cover editorial was boldly titled “THE FOUNDER OF COMMERCIAL CINEMATOGRAPHY”, referring to William Friese-Greene and supporting Will Day’s proposal that a “penny fund” should be instituted by all cinemas, from their customers, to ensure Friese-Greene financial security for the remainder of his life. It also pointed the reader to the eight-page feature inside, written by Day, laying out Friese-Greene’s place in the development of cinema, with images of his workshop, his 1889 patent and more.

William Friese-Greene couldn’t believe what he was seeing and wrote appreciatively to the editor, “You cannot imagine my feelings during the time I was reading your able leader, and Mr. Will Day’s article. Well, no words can express my thanks and gratitude. All the years of my connection with kinematography seem to focus in one day.”

A bank account was opened for the immediate financial appeal, with a committee and treasurer to oversee it. The money kept coming for two months, eventually amounting to the sum of £131. The donor list reads like a real Who’s Who of the major figures and companies of the British film industry at that time. Even R. W. Paul, a pivotal early figure, who had now left the business, put in two guineas. (He is currently the subject of an exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum and a new book.)

Perhaps most touching, is to find the name of Charles Urban, matching Day’s five guineas, his devastating legal defeat of just months before temporarily forgiven, although never forgotten. The accounts also reveal a reassuring first act with the fund, with two items of £5 for “Christmas Expenses” on the 21st and 22nd of December, before that letter had even been published. So, it’s fair to say that Will Day pretty much single-handedly rescued the Friese-Greene family’s Christmas with his speedy intervention.

The final report stated that the committee would be disbursing the rest of the money to Mrs. Greene at the rate of 30s (£1.50) per week. Perhaps it is significant that the money was not put into the hands of her husband. Edith wrote to Will Day to thank him for all he had done, “Dear Mr. Day, l have seen in this week’s BIOSCOPE the kindness and generosity shown to both my husband and myself. Will you, for your personal efforts, and all the committee, please accept our sincerest thanks, and also will you, through the Press, please thank all the subscribers, on our behalf, who so kindly came forward and assisted so generously at such a trying time. We both very deeply and sincerely appreciate all your great kindness.”

This letter came from a London address, not a Brighton one. That family home had now gone. Despite her doubtless sincere thanks, this may have been the turning point for Edith. For her family and herself to become such public recipients of charity and pity, was perhaps a humiliation too far. A year later, she would leave William, taking Maurice and Vincent with her. Happily, the three other boys would make it back from the war alive and go on to successful careers. Despite earnest efforts, the “penny fund” from cinema owners never materialised, their deep sympathies not extending quite as far as the bottom line.

But all that still lay in the future. In the Christmas of 1915, there can be little doubt that the good heart and exceptional kindness of Will Day brightly illuminated what would otherwise have been the very darkest of times for the whole Friese-Greene family.

Peter Domankiewicz

DSC01720edit Claude Graham Kenneth

Claude, Graham and Kenneth celebrating, post-war




The exponential growth of online document archives has been a massive boon to historical researchers such as myself, but it also has its hazards. It’s like a long, mysterious tunnel with loads of enticing side chambers and sparkling grottoes; a tunnel which keeps extending even as you’re walking down it. So, the problem is that whilst I might start off focused on William Friese-Greene, it’s easy for me to stray way off the main path then suddenly look up from my computer screen, realise it’s 2031 and the world is now run by robotic squirrels.

Portrait of Birt Acres from Frontiersman

Mr. Suave: Birt Acres

And that’s exactly how today’s discovery came about. As time has gone on, my work on Friese-Greene has broadened out to interconnect with various other early cinema pioneers, in particular Birt Acres. If you want to know a little more about their connection, please take a look at my talk “Whatever Happened at Clovelly Cottage?” about the first piece of 35mm film ever shot in Britain. Acres was also the first person to project film in public in Britain, after the acrimonious breakdown of his partnership with Robert Paul. It was whilst digging around about Birt Acres that I came across something that made me stop in my tracks.


One of the Wonders of Online Research is the British Newspaper Archive – a gigantic project by the British Library to digitise both national and local publications. And so it was that I found myself unexpectedly staring at the pages of the Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser for Saturday 29th of August 1896. The subject was the East London Exhibition, a celebration of culture and industry that had proved successful beyond all expectations and was being extended for two months.

Queens Hall Peoples Palace from Barnes edit

Queens Hall with screen ready to be unfurled (Barnes Collection)

Held in the Mile End Road in what had been christened “The People’s Palace” (now rebuilt as the Queen’s Building of the University of London), a major attraction had been the performances that took place in Queen’s Hall. Birt Acres’ films on his “Kineopticon” projector were the star attraction and had been held over too.

The list of his films being shown was familiar enough, but then one new item jumped right out of the page at me. This is what it said about it:

“A novel feature is the utilization of the wonderful instrument for advertising purposes, and we believe that Mesrs. Bryant and May are the first firm that has realised the utility of the invention for this purpose. An additional view [film] has been shewn during the week in which a man is seen writing the legend “Bryant and May’s matches are the best.” on a blackboard, and then coolly turns round, strikes a match and lights his pipe, the smoke rising in the most realistic manner.”

Now, that may not make Charles Saatchi quake in his designer bootees, but this is August 1896, just 5 months since paying film shows began and here we are with the very first example of an advertising film: a commercial for a leading brand of matches. I was aware of some pretty early film advertising but I had never heard whisper of this. However, when I “discover” something, the first thing I do is check that one of the experts hasn’t been here before. This is what I could find:

The legendary chronicler of the beginnings of British film, John Barnes, had found one479px-bryant__may_e28098pearlu2019_safety_matches_london_england_1890-1_wellcome_l0058858.jpg reference in a stock list to a possible Bryant and May film by Birt Acres. No details. Another writer said that Bryant and May had sponsorship advertising on the programme for the Kineopticon at the Queen’s Hall. Also, after Birt Acres split from Robert Paul, he signed a contract to make films and equipment for the major German chocolate company Stollwerck who also specialised in creating coin operated machines, for dispensing their candy and for entertainment. Both the Stollwerck Brothers and Bryant & May were founders and shareholders of the London and Provincial Automatic Machine Company. Curiouser and curiouser.

(So now I’m in a narrow passage from a side chamber and am not even sure I can find my way back to the tunnel.)

But the question for the modern researcher is: Is this clickbait quality stuff? Am I entitled to write a snappy headline with the word EVER!!! in shouty caps? Scouring the internet and my bookshelf didn’t thrown out a splinter to pop my balloon, so I was starting to feel pretty cocky that this may never have been written about before. But to be sure, I needed consider who the other contenders are for “First Commercial EVER!!!”. Let’s put them on the scales of film history.

EDISON, OBVS (or not….?)

Campaign, the leading magazine for the advertising industry, crowns Edison as The First (as do many others) for his groundbreaking foray into the world of sell sell sell for… Admiral Cigarettes! In it, guys smoke cigarettes – John Bull, Uncle Sam, some other bloke and yet another who, in an early homage to Justin Trudeau, is got up as a Native American – a woman bursts out of box, dressed as an admiral in tights, smokes fags (if you’re from the US you may need to research that phrase), chucks fags around, fags rain down, they unfurl a banner declaring WE ALL SMOKE, they all smoke, everyone’s happy. Brilliant.

The other well-known advertising film from this early period is Dewar’s It’s Scotch. That’s right: the first things that jumped into companies’ minds to push down our throats – quite literally – were cigarettes and alcohol.

But when did this happen? Admiral Cigarette was shot in July 1897, a year after Bryant & May Matches, so Edison is patently a LOSER and almost certainly responsible for all lung cancer in the ensuing 122 years. Who’s next?


The other big name at the start of moving pictures had to be in the frame. Their offering is decidedly more low-key, sneaky even. The film in question is “Laveuses” [“Washerwomen”]. Three women do the washing outside a Swiss house, cute children are shoved into shot to assist (one of whom appears to exit crying), the washing is hung up. That’s it. It all has quite an amateur feel – except for one thing. Prominently in shot are two boxes of soap, one of which says “Sunlight Seife” and the other one “Sunlight Savon”. In other words, the name for Lever Brothers’ best-selling product in German and French: perfect for Swiss audiences.

This was the idea of Swiss businessman and photographer François Henri Lavanchy-Clarke who was the representative of Lever Brothers (now Unilever) in Switzerland, but who also had the commission for Lumière films in that territory. So maybe it’s not so much the first advertisement as the first example of product placement. Lavanchy-Clarke himself strays into frame at one point, shoving an uncooperative tot into shot, towards other family members.

It was first shown in France in the Lumières’ home city of Lyon on 20th September 1896, so HA! Birt Acres beat them to it by a month. Actually, I cannot tell a historical lie: that’s not strictly true.

Its first public showing was a long way from Switzerland or France. To be precise, it was screened at Keith’s Union Square Theatre in New York as part of the bill for the American debut of the Lumière Cinématographe on 29th June 1896. But did that constitute advertising?

The promotional aspect was clearly not aimed at an American audience, who were unlikely to understand the foreign words or know the brand name, so that part would have no significance.  Lever Brothers had opened a small office in New York, but were not yet manufacturing Stateside so promotion had no value. Indeed, the change of title for the USA to “Washing Day in Switzerland” shifted the emphasis onto it being an exotic foreign scene (to that audience, anyway).


Edison is Nowheresville and, as I said, Laveuses can more accurately be described as a film with product placement that still works fine for those who don’t pick up on it. It is quite different in nature to Admiral Cigarette, Dewar’s It’s Scotch or Bryant & May Matches, all of which are entirely about the product and designed to focus maximum attention on the brand, with the explicit aim of urging the viewer to consume it.

So, with that in mind, I’m going to declare Birt Acres’ Bryant & May Matches THE FIRST COMMERCIAL EVER!!! (Until someone proves me wrong.) Not only that, but he appears to have had a good year’s jump on the rest of the world. And if I’ve upset any Lumière lovers, we can all agree that Bryant & May Matches was the first advertising film shown in Europe. No need for a public vote on that.

Kineopticon at East London Exhibition People's Palace - Aug 13 1896 - Bill Douglas Coll

The debut of the first commercial EVER!!!

Sad part is, that whilst we have the other two contenders in their complete form, not a single frame is currently to be found from the Birt Acres film. There are two reasons for that. Edison and Lumière were corporations with interests in preserving, protecting and exploiting their products. What Birt Acres had was basically a cottage industry. But the loss of this film and so many other ones from that early period is also because it took us so long to see there was any value in preserving them and expending the time, money and effort to do so. If you think this is me being stroppy in a similar manner to my recent article in the Guardian, you’d be right.

But somebody has to stand up for Birt Acres and see he gets clickbait credit where it’s due.


Here’s the kicker: remember that Lavanchy-Clarke guy? Turns out, he was also a business partner of Ludwig Stollwerck, and earlier in 1896 he was deciding between backing Birt Acres or the Lumières for launching moving pictures in Switzerland. The Lumières got to him first and the rest is (this) history. Are you getting chills thinking about that? No? That must be because you’re a normal person with a proper life who doesn’t live down here…

Now, if I take a right turn I’m finally back in the main tunnel again. That’s a relief. So, what year is it up there? And what are those burrowing sounds?

Peter Domankiewicz

The Lost, Found, Amnesiac Social Media World of Friese-Greene

It’s always heartwarming to see any new article in the press about Friese-Greene(s), even if it’s in The Mail and the cause is baffling and the person at the centre of it petulantly blocked me on Twitter. Here it is.

A person who says they are a professional colourist posted on Twitter a sequence of London from “The Open Road”, made by Claude Friese-Greene in the 1920s using an early colour process. The tweeter added a piece of Ennio Morricone music but didn’t give any information as to the source of the images. The result? 3,630,000 views at the time of writing this.

open road2I am genuinely glad that so many people “discovered” this rather wonderful footage but would have been considerably more pleased if they’d discovered the name “Friese-Greene” at the same time. I’m also a bit bewildered because this material was “discovered” on Twitter just a few years ago when Kevin Spacey and Stephen Fry posted it and it went viral. It has also been “discovered” by millions on YouTube where it has resided for a decade now. Such are the mysteries of social media.

So, acknowledging that this is clearly something totally new to a lot of people, I thought it would be worth giving a bit of background.

As you hopefully know, if you’ve read this blog, William Friese-Greene was an inventor who did a great deal of work relating to moving pictures, creating a type of “movie” camera as far back as 1889, several years before the work of Edison and the Lumieres was seen. Along the way, he shot what is the oldest extant film of life in a London street, in King’s Road in 1891.


William and Claude: already in it together

William later went on to work obsessively on systems for motion pictures in colour, a project his eldest son Claude joined him in when only 14 years old. After the Great War, where Claude had been a pilot, he became a professional aerial cameraman and, following the death of his father in 1921, continued work on his colour process, leading to what you see here. This footage is from a series of travelogues called “The Open Road” that he filmed all around Britain in the period 1924-1926 with the hope of launching his system internationally.

It is a two-colour process, alternating frames of red and blue, hence the very distinctive and nostalgic tones. Similar processes did exist before the war. There was the popular Kinemacolor of Charles Urban and the lesser-known Biocolor of William Friese-Greene, while perhaps the earliest experimental colour film of London was shot in 1902! Although there were some Kinemacolor films of events in London, Claude’s film may be the first colour footage of everyday life in the city – and seems to be the earliest colour film that has survived.

Claude went on to become a leading British cinematographer, working at Elstree studios, before dying very suddenly in 1943 at the age of 45. He trained one of the greatest British cinematographers of all time – Jack Cardiff – who, strangely enough, would go on to shoot the film about Claude’s father, William: “The Magic Box”.


I have my own history with “The Open Road”. When I first heard of its existence in the 1990s I asked Luke McKernan, then at the National Film and Television Archive, to please dig out all he could about it. He came through with a lot of information – pages of entries in the indexes. It looked like they had the whole thing. Nonetheless, aside from Luke, the general attitude I heard was that it was just a big jumble of uninteresting stuff, which was tainted by the Friese-Greene name and thus not worth bothering about.

I found there were viewable safety copies of some parts of it and managed to see these. I was blown away. I somehow persuaded the NFTVA to loan me a couple of reels of it to show at the Bath Film Festival in 1995 when I did an entire afternoon/evening event dedicated to both Friese-Greenes. I managed to show them the footage of Bath that Claude had taken. As I anticipated, the audience was stunned at seeing colour images of their city from 70 years before.


Claude shooting The Open Road

Inspired by this response, I wrote to Clyde Jeavons, then head of the NFTVA, with a proposal for how the material could be reworked into a television series, stressing the broad appeal it could have. Almost immediately there was…. no interest at all. Zilch.

However, over the years, there was a change of thinking in the archive, with more interest in seeing how it could reach a wider audience and – as a very underfunded organisation – monetise its holdings. After the great response that greeted the 2005 series “The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon” on the BBC – which brought a fund of film of fascinating social interest out of obscurity – people started looking around for what else there might be that could have broad appeal.

Somebody (I don’t know exactly who) recalled that there was all this footage of Britain in colour in the 1920s that had never been seen by the general public… And so it was that, a decade after I wrote to the NFTVA, Dan Cruickshank was presenting “The Lost World of Friese-Greene”, retracing Claude’s journey. The public response was great, and it even made it to Cannes. It was now described by the Director of the BFI as “a fantastic gem”. What a difference a decade makes.

Inspired by this, the BFI National Archive then found a better method of restoring the footage, using a digital intermediate process and issued the series of films on DVD: https://shop.bfi.org.uk/the-open-road-dvd-bluray.html#.W3fXT3PTXZ_

l1927a.jpgAnd that brings us up to this weekend, when a friend of mine forwarded me the tweet with the film of London, thinking I might not know about it. I retweeted it, adding that the original poster was a “cheeky sod” for putting it up without an explanation of where it came from. Apparently, despite 136,000 “likes” this was an absolutely intolerable offence and within 5 minutes I had received two huffy replies followed by him blocking me.

Presumably a Mail Online journalist scrolled their way across it and assumed that anything so many people had liked constituted news. Writing an article just required pulling stuff off social media. Easy. It also usefully fed into a narrative about how great everything was in Them Olden Days Before Immigration And That EU. Comments pointing out the prevalence of TB and unemployment in that era were furiously downvoted by readers.

But let’s put online insanity to one side for a moment. “The Open Road” was a flop in its time and Claude’s process was never used for anything else. How utterly unimaginable it would have been for him to conceive of millions around the world going crazy for these ignored images, almost a century later.


William Friese-Greene & The Art of Collaboration

Last Friday I got back to doing something I used to do 20 years ago: talking about William Friese-Greene in public. The occasion was the British Silent Film Symposium 2018 and the place was King’s College London. Almost as terrifying as finding myself in front of a roomful of early film history experts was using PowerPoint for the first time. Then I discovered my carefully prepared notes wouldn’t be visible on screen after all and had to wing it. But in the end, it all seemed to come out pretty well, so I put together this video of my talk and the visual presentation for any who might be interested.

The response made the sleepless nights and sessions re-animating experimental sequences worthwhile; it was clear there was a lot of interest in this long-ignored story. I got to know some great new people and the possibility of writing a proper article for an academic journal was raised. Even more surprising is the way Friese-Greene somehow dominated the day.

First of all, Prof. Ian Christie spoke about the story of Friese-Greene showing his first moving pictures to a policeman – as memorably depicted in The Magic Box and how this anecdote originally belonged to Robert Paul, “The Father of British Film”. Then I did my bit. In the afternoon, Geoff Brown (a regular contributor to Sight & Sound) brought Friese-Greene into his discussion of what role British inventors played in the coming of sound to the movies. And as if that wasn’t enough, at least three films were referenced that were shot by his son Claude, who became a well-respected cinematographer. Tony Fletcher, of the Cinema Museum, volunteered a VHS of an old TV programme about Friese-Greene, and that doyen of film writers, David Robinson, offered some research materials on Friese-Greene’s early mentor, John Rudge, and his support for me getting William Friese-Greene back on the historical agenda

It was categorically the most Friese-Greened up any event has been in many a long decade. I’ve already got a plan for next year’s…

Friese-Greene Talks!

The last time I spoke about William-Friese Greene in public was 20 years ago, but next week that silence will be broken. Me and Willie have had our on and off periods, but lately we’ve been spending more time together than ever and I’ve been finding out a bunch of new things about him.

The occasion will be on Friday 20th April at 9.30am in King’s College London as part of The British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2018. The title of my contribution is “William Friese-Greene and The Art of Collaboration” which I aim to be an engaging romp through his intense efforts to make moving picture cameras – years before Edison or the Lumiere Brothers – including a few surprises.

Tickets are here: https://estore.kcl.ac.uk/conferences-and-events/academic-faculties/faculty-of-arts-humanities/department-of-film-studies/british-silent-film-festival-symposium-2018

Speaking immediately before me will be none other than His Filmic Eminence Prof. Ian Christie who has published key works about some of my favourite film-makers: Powell & Pressburger, Martin Scorsese and Terry Gilliam. He is also an authority on the very beginnings of cinema, authoring the TV series and book The Last Machine some years back.

He is about to publish a comprehensive work on Robert Paul, who some call “Father of British of the British Film Industry” and I’m happy to say that my own researches have made a small contribution to it. This was regarding how the story of Friese-Greene showing his first film to a policeman became attached to him after his death, despite appearing to have been originally told about Paul. It was then immortalised in film in “The Magic Box”. Ian Christie will be aiming to explain the strange history and set the record straight. He also has a blog about Robert Paul: https://paulsanimatographworks.wordpress.com/

Then, he has very kindly invited me to speak at greater length, in tandem with him, to his students at Birbeck, University of London, in May. It’s a pleasure to be talking about William Friese-Greene again, particularly as I still regularly see old myths recycled in publications and on the Internet. As is often the case, the truth is far more interesting.

That Eureka Moment – 5

“When are you going to get to the point?” is an entirely justifiable cry to escape from you, my dear, (im)patient reader. Well, I have been working on something rather special, just for you. So I hope it will seem worth the wait.

To quickly recap the story so far and what we know:

  • Between early 1889 and early 1891 William Friese-Green was involved in the creation of three distinct moving picture cameras.
  • After the end of 1890 he was completely broke and had to stop inventing.
  • Although he had to sell (almost) everything he owned in 1891, he kept hold of the cameras.

We know about the first camera because of the patent, plus photographs and drawings of it. We know about the second, stereoscopic one because of both the patent and because that camera is still in existence. For the third one, we don’t have a patent, a drawing, a photo or even a clear description, BUT over in the French film archives we have some of the film it took. And that could tell us quite a bit…

King Road in Cinematheque - 2 frames BFor instance, that it was around 60-65mm wide. That’s the large format still occasionally used by film-makers like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino. But remember that, at the time, celluloid wasn’t freely available in any widths smaller than that. The 35mm standard was still years away and was chosen partially because those Edison Kinetoscope images were only to be viewed in a peep-hole machine, so picture resolution didn’t have to be that high. With the poor resolution of film emulsions at that point in time, it was wise to use a larger format if you wanted to project the images.

We also know that the film negative had been hand-perforated before being shot. There were nine round holes of 2mm diameter punched on both sides of each frame. It must have been a painstaking business to do in a darkroom – and pretty hit-and-miss too. But a bankrupt inventor couldn’t get a perforating machine built. The Lumiere Brothers would also favour round perforations over the square ones of the Edison/Eastman format.

And we see he chose to move away from the square picture format of his earlier cameras, which had probably been influenced by the shape of lantern slides, and instead settled on a rectangular ratio. When I measured this, I discovered it was almost precisely the one that would later be adopted as the film industry standard for many long years – the 1.33:1 ratio, which would later be known as Academy Ratio.


“So, wouldn’t it be great if we could watch that film?” I hear you say.

Yep, it sure would. I mean, you can just hop on YouTube and see the earliest experiments from all the other pioneers like Donisthorpe & Crofts, Le Prince, Demeny, the Skladanowsky Brothers or Edison & Dickson. So where’s that Friese-Greene film? Well, still tucked away in the French archive of the CNC (Centre National de la Cinématographie) in Bois d’Arcy outside Paris. As I mentioned last time, they did preserve it and also made a copy on 35mm that could be projected. It had its world premiere in a collection of restored very early films from the Will Day Collection (see Part 2) at the Pordenone Festival of Silent Film on 16th October 1997.

Will Day Film Screeening #1

I got my chance to see it (and some other Friese-Greene experiments) seven months later at the Duke of York’s in Brighton as part of a Colloquium on “Will Day and Early British Cinema” which I had been invited to participate in, having inadvertently become the world “expert” on Friese-Greene (a status that I have now expanded and built upon to no discernible financial advantage). It was a really glorious thing to see those early images up there on the cinema screen, where Friese-Greene imagined them but probably never saw them.

Will Day Film Screeening #2

And then it went on a tour all over the world and everybody was finally able to see it.

Just kidding. It went back to the CNC and was put back in storage for a very, very, VERY long time with no video copy made available. Just now I came across a blog from a film programmer who says it was screened once more at an event in Helsinki in 2009. As far as I can tell those are all the outings it’s had in 21 long years.

The people I knew at the CNC are long gone. I have tried to make contact via the Cinématheque Française, but have got no response. So I began to think about those photos I took of the negatives back in 1996. They were done in a rush in totally non-ideal conditions – hand-held over a lightbox – but I wondered if there was enough information there to get something out of them. So I had my negatives (of the negatives) scanned at high resolution and asked a professional photographer to help put them into something like the right relative size and proportions, as they originally were. And then I made them move…

You see? I said I had something special for you.

Now, you must remember that each of the original Friese-Greene negatives only made up one ninth of the size of my 35mm frame. And the original Friese-Greene negative was about three times the size of a 35mm stills frame. Technically speaking, that means the original had over 25 times the resolution of what you see here (plus not all of my shots were dead-on in focus). Even allowing for the fact that film emulsion back then was a lot coarser, they would still have looked 10 times better than this.

The proof of this is an enlargement of part of one frame, which I must have somehow acquired from the CNC some 20 years ago:

Kings Rd frame enlargement rotate

The name of the newspaper the boy is selling is clearly legible. I can’t help wondering if, with modern scanning techniques, we might be able to see something of the headline, which would help a lot with dating.

Speaking of dating, I did promise to date this film in Part 3 so here goes:

It was shot around the middle of 1891. I can’t be more specific than that (until we can read that newspaper). Why that date? Well…

The view you’re looking at is from close to the front of 39 King’s Road, Chelsea, which Helena Friese-Greene had used her own resources to rent, providing a home for her daughter and sisters, a photographic studio to make money and a basement workshop to keep her husband from going crazy with boredom. We know that at the start of 1891 they had already abandoned their rather lovely Maida Vale home and were holed up in temporary digs in Paddington. They appear to have moved to this address later in the year. It makes sense he would have shot the film when he lived there, not before.

That said, as we’ve already seen, William Friese-Greene now had absolutely no way to build any new cameras or other inventions. So whatever this was shot with had already been built in 1890. He may of course have adapted it in some way, and this was a test of the new arrangement. He would not be discharged from his bankruptcy until 1894 and, until then, all he could use was his ingenuity. Since he had been on a roll with a non-stop series of moving picture camera experiments over the previous two years, it makes sense this was part of that – before his mind moved on to other inventions.

And the time of year? Well, this is Britain. People don’t normally go about dressed like that in autumn or winter.

But it occurs to me that by some terrible oversight, I STILL have failed to explain why this constitutes a Eureka Moment for William Friese-Greene. However, I fear I would once again be trying your patience to go an any longer right now…


Old School vs New School

These two contrasting books about William Friese-Greene came through my letterbox this week.

In the Blue Corner we have “Close-up of an Inventor” from 1948, written (under a pseudonym) by Muriel Forth, a journalist for women’s magazines . Conspicuous by its absence is any section at the back which explains what her sources were. This shows – many misnomers are recycled and amplified. That said, she had the enormous benefit of spending a lot of time with Ethel, Friese-Greene’s first child, who was already a young adolescent when he was creating his first film camera, so she remembers plenty of detail. Her future husband was also around in that time. Plus, Ms Forth had access to a wealth of documentation which has since been dispersed and/or lost.

So if a book can simultaneously be a treasure trove AND a minefield, this is it. I haven’t read it in many, many years and it’s good to be able to enjoy the stories it contains whilst not being misled about certain factual and technical details.

Aaaaaand…. in the Bluer corner we have a book published just a week ago that aims to engage over-8s in the study of science and technology by turning the invention of cinema into a smackdown. It’s short on detail – well, it’s short on words in general, which I guess is the idea – but it’s largely accurate and makes clear the difference between being a lone inventor with a good idea or an industrial one with serious money behind you. There are some annoying errors, but overall it does a good job and at least does list some sources at the back! I won’t tell you who wins as I don’t want to spoil it for you…

70 years separates these two works, but it’s encouraging to the likes of me to see that the story of Mr. Friese-Greene won’t just quietly go away.

Old School vs New School