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.

William Friese-Greene & The Art of Collaboration

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

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

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

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

Friese-Greene Talks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old School vs New School

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

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

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

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

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

Old School vs New School

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 – 2

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

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

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

It wouldn’t.

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

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

Rayleigh Experimenting

Lord Rayleigh demonstrating what top scientists do

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

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

Henry_Jamyn_Brooks_-_A_Friday_Evening_Discourse_at_the_Royal_Institution;_Sir_James_Dewar_on_Liquid_Hydrogen,_1904

OK, so that’s James Dewar. But the place, the beards, the whole vibe would have been very similar.

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

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

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

10-glaisher-balloon

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

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

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

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

The story continues HERE

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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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That Friese-Greene feeling

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Day

Will Day (“Mr. Accuracy”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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