The Magic Box: a Yorkshire connection

Brick House & Others 011

It is perfectly understandable that, having mastered still exposures, the minds of nineteenth century photographers began to move towards the moving image. Tonight if you were asked in a pub quiz ‘who invented moving pictures?’ the safe answer is still the British inventor and photographer William Friese-Greene. In reality it seems that during the last quarter of the century several experimenters appreciated that if several glass plate photographs of a changing scene were viewed in quick succession, through a ‘magic lantern projector’ for example, then the illusion of movement would be created.

Friese-Greene quickly grasped that heavy glass plates were a very limiting technology. He investigated the capture of images on sensitised paper and, when it became available, flexible celluloid. By 1889 he had a patent for a camera that could take ten exposures per second on Eastman’s perforated celluloid film. Friese-Greene went on to investigate 3D and colour photography, but none of his developments quite made it to commercial practicability. Eventually he was forced by financial pressure to sell his patents, and a good deal of his later life was occupied in law-suits. Legal action over patents for early movie cameras was as prevalent as litigation over mechanical wool-combs had been a generation earlier. Friese-Greene was a relatively young man at the time of his death, younger than me at any rate, and his main memorials are a plot in Highgate cemetery and a successful 1951 film in which he was portrayed by the actor Robert Donat.

I’m not sure exactly where Friese-Greene’s discoveries were made but in the south of England certainly since he had studios in Bristol, London and Brighton. Here in the north there was also a ferment of ideas. Louis le Prince had been born in Metz, France but had worked in the USA and UK. By the 1880s he had been living in Leeds for some years since he was the son in law of Joseph Whitley, a Hunslet brass-founder. Le Prince had developed his own motion picture camera and projection system. In its final form the camera had a single lens and captured its images on paper. In 1888 he took a two second clip of a Roundhay garden scene at Whitley’s house which is widely considered to be the first motion picture ever made. Shortly afterwards Le Prince also recorded a Leeds bridge scene at a point where a blue plaque was later placed. I’m not very technically knowledgeable in this area but I understand that these short ‘movies’ have long since been copied by being re-photographed. You will certainly have no difficulty finding both on the web. Le Prince must have considered that his life was full of promise but his well-deserved success proved elusive. In fact he was moving toward an even more early and wretched end than his contemporary Friese-Greene.

Le Prince had intended to cross the Atlantic to demonstrate his camera in the USA. With this in mind he returned to France in 1890 to meet his family prior to embarkation. The story is that he was seen to board a train at Dijon for Paris but when the train reached its destination neither man nor luggage remained on board. No solution to this mysterious vanishing was ever discovered. Some say that Le Prince was depressed and in financial difficulty; could he perhaps have engineered his own suicide? Others have noted that he was a very secret worker; is it conceivable that agents of another inventor murdered him to gain access to his equipment? Finally the only witness to his boarding of the train at all was his own brother; could we conceivably be looking at the tragic result of a family quarrel? I haven’t been able to learn much more about the man himself. In 1871, as a newly married 29 year old draughtsman, he had been living with his father in law at Roundhay Cottage. I think it is likely that he was resident abroad during other censuses and it doesn’t appears that his career troubled the typesetters of The Leeds Mercury at all.

Remarkably Le Prince was not the only northern inventor with an interest in moving photography. Wordsworth Donisthorpe (1847-1914) was an extraordinary and interesting man. He had been born in Leeds and his mother was distantly related to the poet. Donisthorpe was a non-practising barrister who became a political activist, mathematician, chess player, and photographic experimenter. If you search for him on the web his political books and his activities with the Streatham & Brixton Chess Club seem to account for most of the hits. At the time of the 1871 census he had been living in affluent circumstances with his textile engineer father in Harrogate. Shortly after this, in 1878, Donisthorpe constructed apparatus which exposed a sequence of glass plates to light. Presumably he must have ultimately discarded this development for the same reasons as Friese-Greene.

By 1881 Wordsworth was living in Kensington so it does not seem likely that he was aware of Le Prince’s work unless it was through his cousin William Carr Crofts (1846-1894) who was then a Leeds based architect. William was the brother of Ernest Crofts the military artist. Whatever the stimulus the two men returned to optical research and within a few years Donisthorpe and Crofts had invented a practical means of recording moving images onto flexible film, which was called the Kinesigraph. Whether Donisthorpe was really the first to do this was the eventual subject of a prolonged series of letters to the British Journal of Photography but in any event ten frames of a short moving film of Trafalgar Square have survived from 1890. This seems to have been the third moving film ever made, and unquestionably the first to feature London.

I first encountered Donisthorpe in a series of letters he wrote to Samuel Cunliffe Lister, the Bradford textile magnate, asking for money in consideration of his dead father’s textile inventions. The letters are curated by the North Yorkshire Archives in Northallerton. The first was dated 1888, evidently a rather crucial year in the history of motion pictures. So far as I recall financial sponsorship for his inventions was not mentioned but rather the expenses of educating children. There was never much chance that Lister would part with £10,000 since he was not famous for his generosity, but had he done so the great Manningham Mills strike and the dawn of Labour politics in Bradford might have been recorded on moving film. As it was the American inventor Thomas Edison went on to develop a successful system and is more widely regarded as the father of cinematography.


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