That Eureka Moment – 2

You can’t keep a good man down – and when you’re talking about a compulsive inventor, that goes to the power of ten.

At the end of the first part of this post, in late 1891, Friese-Greene had been reduced to a level he hadn’t been at since he first set up in business in 1877; that is, working as an (underpaid) employee in a photographic studio in his wife’s name. This situation was the result of complete financial disaster, massive debt and public shame. All his household goods had been sold at auction. Even the rights to his patents had to be sold off to keep debtors at bay.

He could no longer dream up inventions and take them down to a patent lawyer to draw up and present to the world. None of the fine scientific instrument makers in Hatton Garden were going to offer him credit terms to build a prototype, nor could he borrow more than £10 without the very real threat of ending up in jail – and he had a daughter and wife to consider. Logically speaking, that would have to mark the end of any progress in the field of motion pictures until he was financially well and free again, wouldn’t it?

It wouldn’t.

When I said last time that EVERYTHING got sold at auction, that wasn’t entirely true. I mean, I’m sure the bailiffs were convinced that was the case. They had ransacked the house pretty thoroughly, his workshop too. They’d got their hands on everything from the Dresden china to his dynamo machine. But there was one thing he wasn’t going to give up: his moving picture cameras.

On the 6th February 1891, as people were browsing the goods laid out for sale the following day, his motion picture cameras were nowhere to be seen, nor did they appear listed in the impressively thorough auction catalogue. But I can tell you precisely where at least two of those cameras were that day: in the Royal Institution.

Rayleigh Experimenting
Lord Rayleigh demonstrating what top scientists do

That night, Lord Rayleigh was going to speak in the hallowed lecture theatre of this most esteemed of scientific establishments. Lord Rayleigh, then 38 years old, was already a very eminent physicist who, amongst many achievements, discovered argon, explained why the sky is blue and identified the waves that travel through the surfaces of solids – like in earthquakes. He went on to be awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1904, but at this moment was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution and his current interests were optics and high-speed photography.

So it was a very eminent gathering that night and amongst twenty notables mentioned as attending were William Friese-Greene and his current collaborator in experimentation, the engineer Frederick Varley. One wonders what the state of Friese-Greene’s mind must have been at that moment. There he was, dressed up in his finest clothes, hob-nobbing with the great and the good, attempting to present a good face to the world, whilst knowing that what had once been his home was now stripped bare, just like his bank account. It is also likely that many there that night were now well aware of his circumstances and privately commiserating or gloating with their companions about his downfall.

Henry_Jamyn_Brooks_-_A_Friday_Evening_Discourse_at_the_Royal_Institution;_Sir_James_Dewar_on_Liquid_Hydrogen,_1904
OK, so that’s James Dewar. But the place, the beards, the whole vibe would have been very similar.

To a packed house, Lord Rayleigh showed various experiments he had been undertaking, using the brief, intense sparks produced by Leyden jars connected to a Wimshurst machine (which generated static electricity) to capture the action of a bullet passing through a soap bubble, as well as discoursing on the properties of lenses.

All of this would have been fascinating and highly relevant to Friese-Greene, but he was probably keen for the talk to be over – for it was then that he could have his moment in the light, when all around was dark. Some sixteen individuals and companies had been invited to exhibit in the library afterwards, to show items that related to the lecture, right alongside Lord Rayleigh’s own pinhole photographs. This list included “stereoscopic lantern and camera combined—camera for taking pictures from three to ten a second—direct reading photometer—photographs of clouds—Mr. Friese Greene and Mr. Varley”.

The “stereoscopic lantern [i.e. projector] and camera combined” had first been seen publicly the previous October. The other camera was also relatively new and had been demonstrated the month after. The cameras and photometer were collaborative work, in one way or another.

10-glaisher-balloon
James Glaisher and Henry Tracey Coxwell go ballooning, in an early photo-op to make meteorology  more cool

The “photographs of clouds” – which Friese-Greene took by himself – might seem a strange contribution to a modern reader, but would have been of considerable interest at the time. Meteorology was a burgeoning new science and photography was its close companion. Friese-Greene had been elected a member of The Royal Meteorological Society the previous May and one if its founders, James Glaisher, was the current, long-term President of the Photographic Society of Great Britain (which hadn’t made it to being Royal yet). So the bonds were close. Photography served the science of meteorology by capturing climatic conditions, whilst often being considered both a science and an art itself.

In all probability, his appearance at the event, and that of his inventions and photographs, had no doubt been scheduled in earlier months, when his public profile was still healthy. It represented acceptance by the scientific community at the highest level. So he kept the appointment, even though it would be his last appearance for quite some time at any meeting of any scientific or photographic institution, where he had been such a familiar face and enthusiastic contributor for so many years.

And he kept his cameras too. He didn’t have money, but he still had plans…

The story continues HERE

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