Peering into the past

20190707_221713Last Sunday’s ‘Meet the curator’ show at Bruce Castle Museum was unexpectedly rewarding. A stream of visitors got a chance to peer through Stereoscopes – most for the first time – and into our replica Kinetoscope. Praxinoscopes and Phenakistiscopes where whirled (there were jokes in the 19c about everything being a ‘scope’ or ‘graph’), which worked well for young visitors. But the real surprise was how popular my little Polyorama Polyoptique proved (visible at bottom of the photo). This is my single most valuable historic artefact (one sold recently for $4500, though mine was cheaper!), dating from c. 1830, and is fragile and tricky to operate. But with help, both young and old managed to view the magical transitions from daylight to night that replicated the Diorama effect in portable form. I wish I could have recorded people’s admiring comments as they viewed, making the whole event really worthwhile. Talk about ‘practical media archaeology’ – this was optical magic with cardboard, tissue and daylight, minus any powerpoint!

The exhibition continues at Bruce Castle until 28 July, after which it moves to London Metropolitan Archives, opening on 2 September. But still to come at Bruce Castle are a screening of North London ‘local films’ (including Paul’s) on 19 July and a Reminiscence Cafe about local cinema memories on 23 July.

Family fun with Paul and Acres


Our first Family Workshop at Bruce Castle Museum yesterday. Kids and parents were busy making Thaumatropes and Praxinoscope discs before I brought a trial batch of DIY flipbooks (modelled on Henry Short’s Filoscope: see previous post), using 50 frames from Paul and Acres’ first great hit of 1895, Rough Sea at Dover. It turns out to be quite challenging, tearing out all the cards, then lining them up to sandwich in a bulldog clip. But when it works, the sea rolls in afresh – just as New York newspapers reported, after Edison used this film that Paul had sent him for his first Broadway show in 1896.

We’ve got another Victorian optical entertainments workshop session at Bruce Castle coming up on Sunday 7 July, for which I’ll do some new flipbooks, and bring  some of my  collection of stereoscopes and other devices. A calendar of other events during the run of the exhibition:

5 & 7 June: I’ll be at Bruce Castle both afternoons, showing guests the exhibition, and happy to meet other visitors

13 June  Panel at NECS Conference in Gdansk, Poland: ‘What if we could see early films in their original colour?’ I’ll be showing the experimental tinting of Paul’s Come Along Do as part of my presentation in a panel on Colour.

7 July     Workshop: Victorian optical entertainments: a chance to try them out! 1.30 pm

19 July   Screening: Looking at local films, from Paul onwards. 2 pm

23 July   Reminiscence Cafe at the Castle: Memories of ‘going to the pictures’, and how do we relate to local films? 2 pm

28 July  ‘Robert who?’ Presentation as part of Bristol’s amazing CineRedis festival. 1.30pm

That’s also the day the exhibition closes in Tottenham – before re-opening in a new format with extras at London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell on 2 September


A genuine fake?


One of the pleasures of attending the recent Laval University Colloque Lemai in Quebec City was a chance to see, handle and discuss the actual machinery of early cinema – my keynote was making the case for ‘A material history of early cinema’. And for me, the most intriguing item in this wonderful collection was a projector labelled ‘R. W. Paul 1905’ (seen above, with Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan, one of the organisers).

The projector certainly had ‘R. W. Paul London’ cast into its iron base-plate, which was Paul’s guarantee of genuineness. But it also carried the name ‘Bioscope’, which was Charles Urban’s projector, described by Stephen Herbert as ‘an efficient fast-pull-down beater-movement machine’, eventually manufactured for Urban by Prestwich – a company based in North London, not far from where our Animatograph exhibition is taking place.  So what could this be?

Jean-Pierre and I discussed this in a video interview shot during the Laboratory part of the Colloque. Could it be one of the rip-off ‘copies’ of his projector which Paul mentioned in a letter to the German pioneer Oskar Messter in a 1932 letter? Certainly the intermittent mechanism was a ‘beater’, instead of Paul’s ‘star-wheel’ mechanism, which points to it being essentially an Urban machine. But why, or how, did it also carry Paul’s name? Was it to trade on Paul’s better reputation – ironic in view of Paul’s involvement in creating ‘fake’ or replica kinetoscopes in 1895?

From what I could see in Quebec, there was no way of explaining this anomalous object. François Lemai may have been disappointed that he didn’t have a ‘genuine’ early Paul projector, but for me it was a true archaeological  ‘find’. If we’re serious about material history and media archaeology, we should expect to discover objects we can’t immediately identify – things that ‘shouldn’t exist’. Early film historians have been notoriously shy of talking about the actual engineering, or commerce, of their field (mainly because they lack the skills, if we’re honest). Here I was confronted by a machine I couldn’t classify, or date; and there must have been many such hybrids in the rough and tumble of cinema’s first decade. It was an unexpected, but welcome, case of what I’d come to Quebec to advocate.


Less challenging, but equally exciting, in the Lemai collection was this original box for Henry Short’s Filoscope, showing how it was marketed. Every film museum in the world has at least one of these flip-books, which all used Paul films as their ‘content’, but I’ve never seen an original box before. Use of the buzz-words ‘cinématographe’ and ‘perfected’ (Edison’s term) is interesting, while ‘animated photographs’ was Paul’s phrase. Short was perhaps the key figure in getting film started in Britain, having introduced Georgiades and Trajedis to Paul in 1894, and introduced Paul to Birt Acres in 1895. Without these introductions, Paul would never have started in ‘animated photography’, and the rest would not have been history… Although we know relatively little about him, he’s a key figure in the graphic novel that ILYA and I created to accompany the Paul exhibition (with a little help from Edward Christie, seen here at the exhibition opening).






Forward to the past…


Building a replica Kinetoscope seemed like rather an extravagance on the slender budget for the Robert Paul 150 exhibition. Would seeing a programme of original Kinetoscope subjects – some of Edison’s and the ones that Acres and Paul made in 1895, when Edison wouldn’t supply any more to his competitors – mean anything in the era of smartphones?

So far, I think the evidence is that it does. I’ve been watching visitors (above) and talking to some of them about how the queues for these machines convinced Paul and others (like the Lumieres) that there could be a market for ‘animated photography’. And so encouraged them to combine the magic lantern principle with film strips. Seeing some of the earliest demonstrations of this in our replica seems to have a certain fascination. Some of the films are still incredible – one of Edison’s earliest (from 1893!), Blacksmiths in action, passing the bottle round, and Acres and Paul’s two immortal hits, Rough Sea at Dover and Arrest of a Pickpocket, even in digital, and really take us back to the primal moment. It moves, it repeats…. life captured in a box!

Now for the DIY flipbook (coming soon), an improved Kinetoscope eyepiece, and the RWP150 teeshirt… Catch it while you can, at Bruce Castle Museum, Wednesdays – Sundays, 1 – 5pm. Best transport route probably tube to Seven Sisters, then one train stop (or walk) to Bruce Grove and a bus up the Grove to the Castle. Former home of the creator of the Victorian Penny Post.

On this day, moving pictures launched in London…

4.alt.Rough Sea
Rough Sea at Dover, showing waves breaking over Admiralty Pier. Probably filmed in June 1895, with the Paul-Acres camera, and sent by Paul to Edison, who showed to great acclaim in  his 1896 Broadway debut show.

Under the quaint heading ‘The Theatrograph’, I found that there were to be exhibited that day two sets of living, or at least moving pictures, one at the Polytechnic in the afternoon and the other at a conversazione in the evening. The chance of comparing these two inventions was not a think to be missed, and I decided that I must be present at both entertainments.

I had, of course, like everyone else, read the graphic description of the cinématographe [misspelled as cimetographe], and I was accordingly prepared for most of what I saw at the Regent Street show. The movements were for the most part wonderfully lifelike, especially the slower and more uniform motions. Some of the more quickly moving figures were very jerky… I am told that it was due to the imperfect working of the mechanism, and that it will be set right in due course.

In the evening I attended the conversazione at the City and Guilds Technical College, with the full expectation of seeing the cimetographe equalled, if not surpassed by Mr Paul’s Theatrograph. I was the more inclined in favour of the latter, in that the details of the mechanism had been shown to me, while Messrs. Lumière et Fils carefully conceal their method of work. An accident, for which Mr Paul is in no way responsible, prevented any satisfactory comparison being possible. The lantern was mounted on an unsteady support, and on the hand-wheel being turned to bring successive films into view, the whole picture joggled up and down on the screen… So far as it is possible to mentally eliminate the superposed motion, I incline to think there is little to choose between the processes.

Lightning, the Popular and Business Review of Electricity, 27 Feb 1896 [discovered by Richard Brown, quoted by John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, vol 1, 1976/1998]


Two demonstrations held on 20 February 1896 (a Thursday incidentally) allowed an anonymous correspondent of Lightning to attend the first Lumière and Paul moving picture shows in Britain. Within four weeks the two systems would be competing commercially in Leicester Square, at the neighbouring Empire and Alhambra music halls, while Paul’s Theatrograph was also running at the Olympia Palmarium, advertised there as ‘ Animated pictures in living colours’. Teething problems with both had been eliminated, and the two received equally enthusiastic reviews.

But what did Paul actually show at Finsbury College, and eight days later at the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street? At the second demonstration, we know he included The Boxing Kangaroo and Rough Sea at Dover, which led to ‘a few people being observed dodging the flying foam’ (both films he and Birt Acres had made during their brief partnership in the previous year). Then there was ‘some performers rehearsing a play’ and ‘an acrobat performing with a pole’ (both assumed to be Edison Kinetoscope subjects) and, tantalisingly, ‘various other scenes’ (reported in The Morning, 29 Feb).

The Royal Institution show was obviously more successful that its forerunner, and led to a member of the audience, Lady Harris, telling her husband, Sir Augustus, that he must engage Paul for Olympia. Then Alfred Moul, dynamic manager of the Alhambra, decided he must compete with his Leicester Square rival the Olympia. He proposed that Paul rename the projector Animatographe, and start a residency that would run until the following June, along with nightly shows in at least five other London music halls.

Animated photography was well and truly launched …

Victorian Time Travel

It’s easy to understand why Robert Paul did not proceed with his 1895 patent for a ‘time machine’ experience, inspired by H. G. Wells’ hit story of that year. As he wrote near the end of his life, in 1943, ‘when I found early in 1896 that the public were attracted in large number to the first animated pictures of a simple character, I dropped my over-elaborate scheme and devoted myself to the production of projectors and cameras for the new art of cinematography’. In fact, this hardly does justice to his own experiments in time travel during the coming months. Apart from showing the finish of the Derby to London audiences the day after the race, in June of that first year of ‘animated photography’, Paul would soon be experimenting with bringing the imaginative past to life. His first studio productions in 1898 included a Dickens adaptation, Mr Bumble the Beadle, and two years later he was ready to tackle The Last Days of Pompeii, complete with Vesuvius erupting in the background.


A catalogue still (one of Paul’s innovations) is all that survives of his Last Days of Pompeii

But what about Wells, who had been intrigued enough by Paul’s project to call at Hatton Garden and leave behind some books on ‘extinct monsters’ – possibly illustrations of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs? Received opinion suggests that, after the barely remembered encounter with Paul in 1895, he then busied himself with ‘scientific romances’, and later autobiographical novels, paying little attention to the emergence of cinema until he began to sell adaptation rights to his fiction in the early ‘teens. However, close reading of the early scientific romances tells a very different story. In two extended time-travel stories of 1898-9, A Story of the Days to Come and the full-scale novel When the Sleeper Wakes, Wells incorporated into his furnishing of the future phonographs replacing print, and moving pictures providing both domestic and public entertainment.

In the Regent Street of ‘the days to come’, now ‘a street of moving platforms and nearly eight hundred feet wide’ known as Nineteenth Way, the Susannah Hat Syndicate projected a vast façade upon the outer way, sending out… an overlapping series of huge white glass screens, on which gigantic animated pictures of the faces of well-known beautiful living women were novelties in hats were thrown. A dense crowd was always collected in the stationary central way watching the kinematograph which displayed the changing fashion.

This was accompanied by ‘a broadside of giant phonographs’ that drowned all conversation with their exhortations to ‘buy the girl a hat’. Wells could conceivably have read Paul’s prospectus for the flotation of his Animatograph company in 1897, which predicted a dramatic expansion of advertising potential. But whether he did or not, he clearly foresaw a future of large illuminated displays that did indeed emerge, not in the era of film projection or neon signs, but in the modern phase of electronic displays.

28. Sleeper.Lanos.2

In his most comprehensive imagining of the world some two hundred years hence, the underappreciated When the Sleeper Wakes, the Rip Van Winkle protagonist, Graham, is visited by a tailor who shows him a range of dress options by means of ‘a little appliance the size of a keyless watch’, on which ‘a little figure in white appeared kinetoscope fashion on the dial, walking and turning’. The actual kinetoscope was a bulky apparatus, but this portable device bears an eerie similarity to the Filoscope that Paul’s friend and first cameraman Henry Short had patented in 1898, making use of Paul’s films for its contents. While there is no way of knowing how the illustrator of The Sleeper, the French artist Henri Lanos was briefed, the device he pictured beside Graham’s bed recalls the Phenakisticope used by Muybridge and Marey. One of the figures approaching Graham is also shown carrying a small device, which is presumably what will shortly be used to show him possible dress-styles. Here Wells’ confident prose conveys his conviction that such marvels will become commonplace, while their illustration can only gesture towards how they might look.

Sleeper.1  Wells’ Sleeper wakens after 200 years

Later, confined by the ruling Council, Graham discovers in his room a table-top apparatus near his bed with an electrical switch. When this is pressed

he became aware of voices and music, and noticed a play of colour on the smooth front face […] On the flat surface was now a little picture, very vividly coloured, and in this picture were figures that moved. Not only did they move, but they were conversing in small, clear voices. It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube.

Graham soon realises he is watching a drama that refers to himself, with a joking reference to ‘when the Sleeper wakes’. He discovers how to change the cylinders in the apparatus, and realises he now has access to a library of dramatisations. Here Wells teases his readers of 1899 by citing ‘The Man who Mould be King’, Kipling’s 1888 story (‘he remembered reading a story of the title… one of the best stories in the world’), followed by The Heart of Darkness and The Madonna of the Future, stories by his new friends Joseph Conrad and Henry James, both of which appeared in the year when the Sleeper was first published. Graham also discoverers ‘an altered version of the story of Tannhauser’, in which the hero of Wagner’s opera ‘did not go to a Venusberg but to a Pleasure City’, which we are to understand is sufficiently pornographic to embarrass this time traveller, ‘who forgot the part played by the model in nineteenth-century art’.

As Graham experiences more of this future world, he discovers that recordings have entirely replaced printed texts, paintings and performances. And remarkably, Wells looks forward to the film and broadcasting studios of the near future

factories where feverishly competitive authors devised their phonograph discourses and advertisements and arranged the groupings and developments for their perpetually startling and novel kinematographic dramatic works.

The extraordinary prescience of Wells’ technological and social predictions was of course a major reason for his reputation as a seer, just as it would limit appreciation of his literary achievements. But what is of narrower interest here is how quickly he was incorporating not only projected pictures, then known by a wide variety of names, and also their immediate forerunner, the kinetoscope, into his imagined world of the future. This tends to confirm that he must have witnessed the kinetoscope in operation during its short-lived heyday in 1894-5, as Terry Ramsaye surmised from The Time Machine, possibly even due to his contacts with Paul in 1895. But it also suggests that he must have seen enough projected animated pictures by 1898, when The Sleeper Wakes began serial publication, to inspire this work’s bold extrapolations.

Far from being a dead end in 1895, the Paul-Wells ‘time machine’ idea should perhaps be seen as having inspired both young men to realise its wonders by more modern means, even before the end of that last Victorian decade.