It’s a strange fact, but British inventor William Friese-Greene is as well-known among serious film buffs for not having invented cinema as he is for inventing it. Now, on the centenary of his sudden death at 65, mid-flow at a meeting of film distributors, admirers of this controversial pioneer from Bristol are at the centre of a new drive to establish his international legacy once again.
Film director and historian Peter Domankiewicz believes Friese-Greene will soon be reinstated as one of the great figures in the development of the moving image: the one who got there before Thomas Edison, the Lumière brothers and George Méliès, the Frenchman whose story was told by Martin Scorsese in the hit 2011 film Hugo.
“Friese-Greene patented a motion picture camera, and created several models which did most of what a movie camera would later do when the film industry truly kicked off in 1896,” said Domankiewicz, adding that well before the end of the 19th century Friese-Greene had also developed a second more advanced camera, and had quietly discovered a way to project images from a perforated roll of film.
So, at first sight, the job of rebuilding the reputation of this innovator should not be difficult. After all, he is already the subject of a moving 1951 biopic, The Magic Box, starring matinee idol Robert Donat and based on a fulsome 1948 biography. What’s more, Friese-Greene’s impressive Lutyens-designed gravestone in Highgate cemetery in north London boldly memorialises him as “the inventor of kinematography”.
But mistakes made in a first, over-enthusiastic and patriotic attempt to celebrate Friese-Greene’s achievements have allowed subsequent historians to pick holes in the story. In fact, in 1955, on the centenary of his birth, an influential campaign actively opposed the celebration of his work by the industry.
“People have been sceptical and even suggested he stole ideas,” said Domankiewicz, “but it was really the fault of those who built up a reputation around him after his death. Even the patent number on his gravestone is wrong. He was simply part of a post-second world war attempt to claim him as a British genius.”
Now the time is ripe, the film historian believes, to make it clear that Friese-Greene really did significantly speed up the possibility of cinema, and that without his experiments in a basement workshop while on the edge of destitution, the technical problems posed by getting a camera and a projector to create the impression of live action would not have been solved.
To coincide with the centenary of Friese-Greene’s death on 5 May, the organisation Bristol Ideas is publishing a book of essays as part of its Film 2021 programme, with two key chapters on the rediscovery of Friese-Greene. One is by arts historian Sir Christopher Frayling, the other by Domankiewicz, who is also to speak at an online symposium staged at the Cinema Museum in Kennington, south London.
Born William Green in 1855, Friese-Greene went on to win a charitable place at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital school in Bristol, where he did so well he earned himself a prestigious photographic apprenticeship in the city. But this job came to a premature end when he met and married Swiss visitor Helena Friese, the daughter of a German baron, at the age of 19. And in a remarkable move for the era, he added her surname to his own.
He later ran a hugely successful photography studio in nearby Bath during the 1880s. And it was here that a lucky meeting with John Rudge, a local magic lantern expert, set him off in the direction of building a camera. One could say they clicked.
Friese-Greene and Rudge both publicised their work, unlike the French inventor Louis Le Prince, a contemporary innovator who worked more privately.
“It was a rags to riches story for Friese-Greene,” said Domankiewicz, “but he was back in obscurity by 1891. He had lost all his money and was working on his own in his basement workshop, actually just punching what we would now call sprocket holes into film.”
It was not until Friese-Greene’s death in 1921 that the film industry began to raise him to heroic status.
“In a few minutes, he went from obscurity to near-royalty,” Domankiewicz writes in his essay. “After a grand funeral, his passing was marked with two minutes’ silence in British cinemas.”
Domankiewicz, who writes a regular film blog, now also claims that the engineers Birt Acres and Robert Paul could not have made their first commercial 35mm camera at such a pace in 1895 if they were not working from Friese-Greene’s blueprints.
“Accusations that came later that Friese-Greene used other people’s work just don’t hold water,” said Domankiewicz, who has recently received a PhD grant to continue his research into the life of the inventor, including the recreation of his early film experiments.
“There is, however, some evidence of other people taking credit for his ideas.”