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How Films Began: William Friese-Greene – The True Inventor Of Cinema

by Claude Friese-Greene

Article date: 1933 | From The World Film Encyclopedia

There have been many versions of the origin of motion pictures; there have been many claimants of the original invention. The man to whom the honour should really go was William Friese- Greene, a London photographer. His claim to the invention has been established beyond all doubt. In this article his son, who is now Britain’s foremost cameraman, employed by British International Pictures, describes the early experiments and results when films were young.

FILMS are so much a part of our everyday lives that few people ever give a thought to their invention.

For years there have been disputes about who invented motion pictures. I can tell you right at the beginning that my father, William Friese-Greene, was the first to apply for and obtain a patent for a moving picture camera in June, 1889 ; and a later patent, to make it possible to produce motion pictures as we know them today”. (British Patent No. 10,131, June 1889), Yet long before that year, in 1885, my father had alighted on the secrets of the motion picture.

It is with all due modesty that I place on record the fact that my father was an extraordinary genius ; like many other men with fertile brains, he did not get his reward.

It was in 1887 that my father conceived the idea of linking up the newly- invented phonograph of Edison Bell with photographed movement. In 1889, after he had been struggling month in and month out to perfect this idea,he alighted on a solution and sent a description of it to Edison. He asked the American to co-operate with him and produce talking pictures. That was in 1889.

magic-box-1951

Mr. Edison, being a shrewd man, was obviously interested in such a project. He sent a request for the drawings of the camera patent ; but nothing further was heard from the Edison officials.

First, however, let me tell you of my father’s early days. William Friese-Greene was born at Bristol on September 7, 1855 and was educated at the Blue Coat School, Clifton. He was very young when he became interested in photography, then at the beginning of its development.

It was in 1882 that my father and John Arthur Roebuck Rudge, who had devised a projection lantern, which he called the Bio-Phantoscope, joined forces. Rudge incidentally was the first man to run an electrically-propelled boat (his own invention) up the River Avon, at Bath. In St.Michael’s Cemetery, Bath, there is a tomb on Rudge’s grave, with an inscription recording this inventions , a tablet to the joint memory of Rudge and my father has been affixed to the wall near the house where Rudge lived in Bath. Rudge produced what he called ” Life in the Lantern,” using 4 by 5 inch glass plates, with an oscillating shutter, made of two leaves and opening and closing from the centre. As the shutter closed over one plate the next plate was advanced between the light and the lens, and this gave the illusion of animation.

It was this device that gave my father his first idea for motion photography. He made several improvements on Rudge’s invention, and in 1885 gave an exhibition before the Photographic Society of Great Britain. Rudge, by this time, had died and my father had to continue his experiments alone.

Two years later my father had still further improved his lantern. He was a very successful photographer in Piccadilly, London. Further fame and notorietv came his way when he drew such large crowds to his studio by the exhibition of his ” moving pictures ” that the police compelled him to stop the exhibition.

I want you to notice that I stress the fact that he was a successful photographer. He had money then. But so keen was he on his invention that he had lost every penny and had actually been imprisoned for debt before he died dramatically while addressing a meeting of film men at the Connaught Rooms, London, on May 5, 1921.

The search for a suitable flexible material for negative and positive prints gave my father a great deal of anxiety. He realized that true motion picture photography could never be obtained satisfactorily with glass as a basic material. Then, in 1888, he found what he had been seeking. He devised a camera that enabled him to take pictures in series on strips of sensitized paper of a length as great as fifty feet. It was with this camera that he photographed a street scene at Brighton that gave him proof over an Edison claim in the United States courts more than twenty years later.

It was for this case that my father made his first and only visit to America in 1910. This action definitely proved that my father, and not Thomas A. Edison, first conceived and invented the cinematograph camera, and that it was also W. Friese-Grecne who first thought of linking sound and photographed action together.

When the case was heard in the United States Circuit Court, South District, in December, 1910, that street scene at Brighton was invaluable.

With a camera built for him by R. Chipperfield of Clerkenwell Green. London, my father was able to take photographs on a sensitized strip of paper, at the rate of seven or eight a second. But the problem was, when the reproduction of life motion was needed, how to prevent the paper from breaking.

A solution was found in celluloid, which had then begun to appear as a substitute for the glass plates used by photographers. One of the manufacturers of celluloid was Mr. Alexander Parker, of Birmingham. My father got in touch with him and told him of his problem. The two men worked and experimented until in that same year another camera was invented, that was able to take celluloid film. This was what was known as a stereo-scopicordi-opticcamera.

It had two lenses side by side, but could be used as a single camera merely by closing one lens aperture.

It was in January, 1889 that my father took his first motion picture with celluloid. This was a scene in Hyde Park, showing Mr. Alfred J. Carter strolling with his son, Bert. This strip of film, by the way, was also used in the American courts to prove my father’s case against The Edison Trust.

There was one objection to this camera—the size of the picture. The next advance was a camera constructed for him by A. Lege and Co., of Hatton Garden, London, and delivered in the summer of 1889. This used tooth sprockets and was designed to run perforated film, slightly less than 21 inches wide. Twelve pictures a second could be taken with this camera, and its first experiment was a scene in the King’s Road, Chelsea, early in 1890.

1887—The First Cine Camera

In association with Mortimer Evans, an engineer, my father obtained a patent for a “camera for taking pictures at a rapid rate.” This was on June 21, 1889, so that it was on this date that (officially) the first cinematograph camera was born. Few people were very excited about this invention. In fact not until November 15, 1889, when “The Optical Magic Lantern Journal” gave the news to the world, did anybody realize the possibilities of the invention.

Although the daily and weekly newspapers commented on the article, the whole idea was so fantastic and far-fetched that sneers, rather than cheers, welcomed the invention. Let me give you a short extract from that article of only 43 years ago.

It was headed A Startling Optical Novelty-Photoramic and Phon-Photoramic Effects. “Imagine the sensation,” the article said, “that would be produced, if the whole of the recent Lord Mayor’s Show were to be presented upon a screen exactly as seen by a person stationed at one particular point looking across the street. The house on the opposite side would remain stationary and the procession would pass along, each minute movement, as it actually took place at this given point, being represented. The name of Friese-Greene, the eminent photographer of Brook Street,W., will become familiar throughout the land in connection with an invention by which all these effects can be produced. He has invented a peculiar kind of camera—to outward appearances not unlike an American organette, handle and all—about one foot square. The instrument is pointed at a particular moving object and, by turning the handle, several photographs are taken each second. These are converted into transparencies and placed in succession upon a long strip, which is wound on rollers and passed through a lantern of peculiar construction (also the invention of Mr. Friese-Greene) and, by its agency, projected upon the screen. When the reproduction of speech is also desired, this instrument is used in conjunction with the phonograph.”

Do you hear a faint echo of the word “talkies” drifting back tnrough the ages?

But although he had gone so far, nobody else would get any farther. Unbelievable though it seems to-day, nobody could then see the commercial possibilities of this invention. Certainly the War Office did go so far as to ask him to go for a whole day to the Isle of Wight to conduct experiments with this new camera, for which he was paid the munificent sum of five guineas. The first report contained the momentous statement that the new invention ” might be useful for balloon photography in war-time.” Shades of 1914-1918!

My father had spent no less than £10,000 of his own money on experiments. What was worse, he had neglected his previously prosperous photographer’s business to further his invention. In February, 1891, his home and practically everything else he had were sold to pay off his debts. Even this failed to quash his enthusiasm. He knew that he had a marvellous invention and he was anxious for the world to realize its possibilities.

Colour on films was the next thing to which he set his active brain. As far back as 1903, when I was only a child of five, he had perfected a colour scheme of cinematography. He took a picture of me in our garden at Brighton. I was waving a Union Jack (it was just after the Boer War) and the red, white and blue came out remarkably distinctly.

I have always felt that his true worth has never been thoroughly appreciated. One possibly does not expect the general pubHc to appreciate his work, but those men in the industry, to whom my father’s invention has meant so much, might have been keener to have praised where praise was due. Don’t imagine for one moment that I am ungrateful, but I do feel that a little more might have been done. In 1916, for instance, when I was with the Cinematograph Branch of the Royal Flying Corps, my father’s resources were so low that a public subscription was opened. The sum of £136 OS. 2d. was raised.

Five years later he died, at the age of 65, after making a moving speech, lull of sincerity and sound commonsense, to a group of film renters, exhibitors and producers. British films were in a sad state at that time. Wrangling and differences of opinion only accentuated the plight of the industry. My father endeavoured to get these people to see the folly of wrangling. He tried to make them realize that co-operation was the only thing to prevent America getting the whole of the film monopoly. He altered the tone of that meeting and then went back to his seat and died.

Two policemen took him to the nearest mortuary. In his pocket was a cheap, well-worn leather purse. Inside were a few coins that came to the grand total of one shilling and tenpence—all the money he had in the world.

One and tenpence—just enough to buy a seat at the pictures.

Top image show William and Claude | Middle image is Robert Donat in the 1951 film about Friese-Greene – The Magic Box 





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