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…

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.

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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