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.

Poster_Cinematographe_Lumiere
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

 

WAS THIS THE FIRST COMMERCIAL EVER MADE?!

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.

STRIKE A LIGHT!

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 LUMIERE BROTHERS, C’EST CLAIR, NON? (Ou non…. ?)

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).

AND THE WINNER IS…

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.

BACK TO THE TUNNEL

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

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…

 

That Eureka Moment – 4

To some it would have been the most boring place in the world, but to me it was Aladdin’s Cave. It was March 1996 and I was in the deepest, dimly-lit reaches of the astonishingly extensive archives of the Cinémathèque Française.

My guide down these subterranean corridors of cinematic archaeology was the relatively recently-appointed new director of the archive, Laurent Mannoni, whose knowledge of the technology of moving images stretched from way back into pre-cinema times, right up to the present day. Unlike his predecessors, he was keen to explore the Will Day Collection (see previous post); to better understand it and let the public see its treasures. To this end, he had been inviting various experts over to Paris, who had specialist knowledge, to help with the process.

laurent-mannoni-devoile-metropolis-L-Kgjhc_

The wonderful Laurent Mannoni in his Happy Place

I should stress that this description had not been applied to me. Not yet, anyway. I had essentially hijacked the visit of someone far more well-informed than myself. My companion was Stephen Herbert, who at that moment was the Technical Manager of the British Film Institute’s Museum of the Moving Image on London’s South Bank, as well as being part of its curatorial team. He had been helping me feel my way through the historical minefield of the creation of cinema and had already inculcated into me two guiding principles:

  1. Always return to absolutely the earliest, original sources you can possibly find for whatever you’re investigating. Don’t rely on other people recycling or paraphrasing sources as they may be lazy and/or biased in their research.
  2. If at all possible, get your sweaty little hands on whatever technology you’re interested in, to find out how it really worked in practice. Don’t just rely on patents, drawings and memories. If that’s not possible, rebuild it yourself.

I can honestly say that this philosophy has guided all my research ever since, although I bow to Stephen in the application of B) as he understands this stuff so much better, having raised tinkering with mechanisms to quasi-mystical levels.

So when I heard he was off to Paris to have a close look at the Will Day Collection I was quick to suggest I might come along and shed a little bit of light on anything to do with William Friese-Greene and his early mentor and collaborator, John Rudge. Happily both he and Laurent agreed to this. And equally happily, it turned out I was able to make myself useful.

So I found myself in this place:Cinemtheque store #1

Ranks upon ranks of shelves, stacked to the ceiling with every conceivable device for capturing moving images or displaying them; from optical toys to massive Technicolor cameras. It was bewildering and thrilling for someone such as myself, in love with cinema both as a viewer and as a filmmaker.

Cinemtheque store #2We looked at quite a variety of items that I had previously only read about in books; amazing creations that made pictures move, well before cinema. Then, somewhere in the midst of all of this, Laurent produced some artefacts I had barely dared hope were still in existence, given that half a century had passed since they last saw the light of day: some of Friese-Greene’s first films, shot on celluloid.

It was quite something, after two years of being buffeted by conflicting waves of conjecture and assertion about the works of William Friese-Greene and all the debate about what he achieved or failed to, to finally be confronted by the incontrovertible physical manifestations of his efforts.

By rights, these films shouldn’t have even been there. In any normal circumstances they would have long ago gone to the archives of the Centre National du Cinéma (CNC) in Bois d’Arcy to be lovingly restored and preserved. But nothing to do with Friese-Greene is very normal.

Such was the rather stealthy way that the Will Day Collection had originally been acquired, combined with the indifference to its Friese-Greene treasures by the then director, topped off with the outright hostility of some British historians in the ensuing years to giving any credence to claims of Friese-Greene’s importance in the invention of moving pictures, that absolutely nothing had been done with them since the day they had arrived in Paris in 1959.

Long before then, Will Day had decided to conserve these films and make them available for display in exhibitions by keeping them between large sheets of glass in long strips. What I saw on that day in 1996 was presumably how they had remained for around seventy years. It seemed he had used some sort of gum to hold them in place, or preserve them, which had left brown, sticky residues. In addition to which, the years themselves had taken their toll on some of the earliest celluloid roll film to be fabricated, which was cracked and contracting.

In fairness to Will Day, what he did may have actually kept them in a better state than if they had been left to moulder in a rusting film can all that time. Nonetheless, exciting as the moment was for me, I felt a profound emotional pang that no inanimate object had ever elicited from me. It was akin to coming upon a species of animal, thought to be extinct, only to discover it had been struck by a car and could barely limp to the side of the road.

For Laurent Mannoni, I imagine that his situation with the Will Day Collection was like he had been bequeathed a neglected zoo by some eccentric uncle and was now trying to figure out which creatures most urgently needed his attention. I made clear that I felt these films should be one of those priorities. He promised to get them to the film archive for preservation straight away and, indeed, Michelle Aubert of the CNC made sure they got the necessary loving care to nurse them back to the fullest health possible. In fact, they made considerably more effort to conserve them than the British Film Institute was doing with its own Friese-Greene materials at that point in time.

But, apart from conservation issues, what did these films show? We placed the first glass sandwich on a lightbox. It was a sequence from the camera whose construction was completed in September of 1889, made along the lines of the British patent submitted in June that year (and granted in 1890) by William Friese-Greene and Mortimer Evans, originally entitled “Taking photographs Automatically in a Rapid Series with a Single Camera and Lens”. The pictures appeared to show people walking beside the River Thames, which didn’t correspond to any specific description of a sequence which Friese-Greene himself or others had mentioned in writing, but was presumably an early test. The size of the images was just as I had seen described by Theodore Brown, another ingenious cinema inventor who knew Friese-Greene and interviewed him for the Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly, which Brown edited, in 1909 That is to say: they were 2½ inches square (approx 65mm).

Riverside sequence - 2 frames

From the first sequence, as I saw it in March 1996

One half of the sequence was mounted upside down in relation to the other and I could only look at a few frames at a time, making it hard to get a sense of it. The edges of the strips clearly showed the marks of the pin-wheels that the patent had proposed to help steady the movement of the film. I examined it thoroughly, but it was in a fractured state and I wanted to have a chance to view it properly once it had been restored. More to the point, I had that feeling you have as a child at Christmas, when you know the last present left is the most exciting one.

I was impatient to move on to the other sequence. I had only ever seen fragments of it reproduced in various unexpected places, with no clear attribution or explanation. I’d had no idea if it still existed at all or, if so, as more than some clippings of a couple of frames. But here was a sequence of over fifty frames – that would therefore run for quite a few seconds. Certainly enough to get an impression of how fast and how well the camera that shot them functioned.

The pictures were fairly evenly spaced and clear, and there were round, punched sprocket holes up the sides of the film, which didn’t respond to any camera that I, or Stephen, or Laurent had ever seen (and Stephen and Laurent between them knew a terrifyingly large number of film cameras). But these perforations did correspond to Friese-Greene’s own account of a camera he designed after the one he made with Mortimer Evans.

King Road in Cinematheque - 2 frames B

Part of the second sequence, photographed on the lightbox

Even as a deteriorated negative, viewed in less than ideal conditions, one could see this was a film of a city street in Britain, probably London. I’m pretty sure my heart started beating harder and I held my breath.

Something about that film, which had survived total neglect and indifference, lost amidst thousands of other artefacts for decades, was special. Very special, I felt.

Something about that film smelled of a Eureka Moment.

 

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That Eureka Moment – 3

There are some photographs of Friese-Greene’s early film experiments that seem to have been wilfully ignored by historians writing about the beginnings of cinema. My guess is that this is because explaining and dating them is problematic – and because to attempt to do so might disrupt the status quo of academic opinion around Friese-Greene; which is that he failed and lied and can be safely ignored.

So I’m going to attempt to both explain and date them, because they may represent Friese-Greene’s Eureka Moment. The place where his plans finally came together.

These photos are of artefacts in the Will Day Collection, which has resided in the Cinématheque Française since the late 1950s, when British museums let it be sold abroad, regarding it – as the curator of the Kodak museum put it – as “a load of junk with a few nuggets”. Now, however, it is recognised as a vital source of information about the beginnings and development of motion pictures.

Will Day caricature with his collection

Genuine contemporary photograph of Will Day surrounded by his collection

Will Day was visionary in his understanding that this was history that needed to be recorded through gathering documents, films and equipment, whilst talking to surviving participants. He did this enthusiastically and was a relentless champion of the importance of Friese-Greene’s work, but he was, to say the least, an erratic and unreliable historian – which did neither Friese-Greene, nor himself, any favours in the long run.

In August 1922, a year after Friese-Greene’s death, he first showed a collection of 500 artefacts in the South Kensington Museum (now the Science Museum). From the picture at the top of this article, you can see it was pretty impressive. There was a whole display case dedicated to Friese-Greene’s work. Many of these items remained there on indefinite loan for decades. Ten years on, in late 1932, he made a selection of 64 items for the Royal Photographic Society’s annual exhibition. Looking through the list of what was shown, it’s worth stopping to scrutinise items 45 & 47 [#46 being what Day said was Friese-Greene’s first ever celluloid film – but that’s for another blog post].

#45 from Will Day RPS exhibition 1932#47 from Will Day RPS exhibition 1932

And here is Will Day holding up #45, that roll of paper negative film, with an indecipherable image on it, followed by a couple of clippings featuring the strip of celluloid film #47 (reversed to be positive), from sources as disparate as the British Chemist & Druggist from 1955 and the American Moving Picture World from 1927.

Will Day holds up paper film - from book edit

So, according to Will Day in 1932, the strip of paper film is from 1885, although he appears to have changed that to 1888 on this photo.

And Day says these other frames were filmed in Kings Rd, Chelsea in June 1900, but then later said it was in November 1889, whilst the Moving Picture World (on the right) says they are from Brighton in 1889. The Chemist & Druggist doesn’t venture a date but does say it’s in the Kings Road.

So that’s crystal clear. Isn’t it?

If Will Day knew Friese-Greene as well as he claimed, then they must surely have had conversations about all this, but the impression one gets is that Day made no notes at the time and later made up a chronology from poorly-researched guesswork and half-memories.  He then appears to have amplified some of his errors over time, occasionally correcting others. So that means that we’d be best off ignoring almost everything he said about dates and checking for ourselves.

In the earlier parts of this post, we established that Friese-Greene had spectacularly crashed and burned at the start of 1891 and was hung out to dry financially over the course of that year. Not only were his household belongings sold, but he had claims from debtors flying at him. He wasn’t allowed to borrow money and you can be sure that all those clever scientific instrument makers who built his inventions would not be offering him a line of credit – or even an invitation to come round for a cup of tea, when he’d defaulted on paying his bills.

So he couldn’t possibly have had a moving picture camera constructed – be it a new design or a copy of an earlier model. But, as we have seen, he had held onto the ones that were already built and in his hands (if not paid for in full). We know for sure about the two that he showed off at the Royal Institution and he had the others tucked away, safe from the bailiff’s grasping hands.

But what were these cameras like and how many were there in the first place?

Friese-Greene’s own account of which cameras he had made and in what order, is not terribly clear – on one occasion he says there were four different ones, but five made in all. We know that he had a model of the working parts of a moving picture camera built in 1889 and later that year, the completed camera was ready. We know that with Frederick Varley he developed a stereoscopic (3D) camera in 1890. We know that a second stereoscopic camera that was meant to double as a projector appeared later that same year. And in late 1890 and early 1891 there are several mentions of yet another camera. This camera does not appear to be stereoscopic, but at photographic societies he and Varley show bands of film taken with it with 400 exposures on, which they say are typically recorded at 5 frames per second. It seems likely that it was this last camera which was shown at the Royal Institution on Feb 6 1891, alongside a stereoscopic one, the day before Friese-Greene had his household goods auctioned off.

[There are also a records of Friese-Greene taking out a provisional patent for “Cameras” in June 1890 – during the Chester Photographic Convention – and in January he had applied for a patent for “Obtaining photographic representations” – but the full patents were never submitted.]

So, there we have five cameras constructed, but the first two or the stereoscopic two could be regarded as of the same type, which just might fit Friese-Greene’s account.

But what was it like, this last camera? How was it different from the other ones? There’s no description I’ve come across so far that can help answer that, so I’d prefer to look back at those inscrutable images above of people on a street and work backwards from there, asking: what sort of camera might have taken them?

Allowing for shrinkage with age, the film is probably of the celluloid rolls that were manufactured by Eastman in 1890-91 to fit their popular “Kodak No. 1” camera – 2⅝ in wide (67mm) –  so that would have been easily available at that time. But it definitely wouldn’t have come with holes along the edge.  Friese-Greene did say that he had the scientific instrument makers A. Légé & Co, who built some (possibly all) of his cameras, make him a couple of custom hole punches to perforate both sides of the film simultaneously. Close examination of the film shows that groups of holes are well aligned, then there is an irregular space, then a regular group – suggesting that the film had to be punched laboriously by hand, leading to intermittent errors.

Oh yes, I said “close examination”, which would suggest someone had been close to the original film to check this. I should clarify, that person was me, about 20 years ago. How that happened needs some explaining…

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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.

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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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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….

Disaster

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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