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

 

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

 

 

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!

…If you want to read more about Mr F-G, make sure you click the Follow button down on the right – scroll back up if you can’t see it and the button will magically appear