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

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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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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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