A Noble Failure

09 07 friese-greeneWilliam Friese-Greene was born on this day in 1855. He was a photographer and inventor who is known for his pioneering work in the early days of cinematography. In 1869 he became apprentice to a photographer in Bristol and later opened studios in Bristol, Bath, Plymouth and London. In Bath he met a man named John Arthur Roebuck Rudge who had invented a Magic Lantern that could display seven slides in quick succession, creating the illusion of movement. He called it the Biophantic Lantern. I enjoy a flamboyantly named invention and there are quite a few of them here. Together they began to improve the lantern so that it could project photographic plates. Friese-Greene found glass plates to be an impractical medium for moving pictures and began to experiment with oiled paper and then celluloid. They called the new device the Biophantascope.

In 1889 he was issued with a patent for a camera that was capable of taking up to ten photographs per second on celluloid film, his chronophotographic camera. It featured in an article in British Photographic News in 1890. It is not clear whether or not he managed to successfully demonstrate his film. If he did manage to get it to work properly the images would have been very jerky. By this time others had achieved film speeds of twenty frames per second. His later experiments with projecting stereoscopic images also met with limited success. He spent to much time and money on his experiments that he neglected his other businesses and in 1891 he was declared bankrupt. He was forced to sell his patent for the chronphotographic camera and most of his equipment.

Friese-Greene was a born inventor and it seems his bankruptcy was no obstacle. He has over seventy patents to his name including inkless printing, electrical transmission of images, x-rays and gyroscopically levelling airships. In 1898 he became obsessed with colour photography. In 1905, after serving a prison sentence for borrowing money whilst being an undischarged bankrupt, he began to experiment with a film system called Biocolour. It produced the illusion of colour by exposing a black and white film through two different coloured filters, frame by frame, alternately red and blue green. Then each developed frame was also stained red or green. The resulting images gave a passable impression of colour but the image flickered quite a lot and suffered from red and green fringing when the subject was in rapid motion.

In 1911 William Friese-Greene was taken to court by the inventors of a rival colour process called Kinemacolor. They claimed his work infringed their own patent. William won the case but lost an appeal to the House of Lords in 1914. In 1915 the Lords reversed their decision again but William had not developed his system fully enough to take advantage of it. His son Claude continued to work on the process in the 1920s.

Friese-Greene died suddenly after speaking at a meeting about the poor state of the British Film industry. He had just one shilling and ten pence in his pocket. His life was commemorated in a rather awful and over romanticised book and later an even worse film. The film claimed that he was the first to use perforated film which was not true and his reputation suffered because of it. He was obsessed by film and worked hard on his ideas. He was certainly one of the pioneers of early cinema, he just didn’t seem to get anything quite right.


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