During a conference at Laval University in Quebec City last May, held to celebrate the donation of the Francois Lemai Collection of early cinema equipment, I was confronted by an intriguing challenge. A projector bearing the name Paul – but with the ‘wrong’ mechanism for a genuine Paul projector of 1905.
Back then I wrote in this blog : ‘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.’ I speculated: ‘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? 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?
A video of me discussing this anomalous device with Jean-Pierre Sirois- Trahan has now been posted on the TECHNÈS website of the University of Montreal
And this week’s DOMITOR conference brought yet another perspective on the material history of early cinema. Guy Edmonds, a research fellow in Transtechnology research at Plymouth University, gave a fascinating paper on the issue of ‘flicker’ in early cinema. We know this motivated much debate and innovation in projector shutters, with Paul claiming that his small single-blade shutter – which you see here – minimised flicker. But did it?
I raised the point with Guy, and he replied as follows: ‘[Paul’s] Reliance is an interesting case from my point of view because it’s almost the apogee of the engineering solution to flicker. However its flicker reduction probably worked better on paper than in reality as even the very brief eclipse of light that it produced would still have been felt by the observer – and at a relatively low frequency, c.16Hz. Whereas shutters with two or three blades would have raised the frequency to 32 or 48Hz at the same time reducing the light output – a much more effective strategy for reducing flicker to quasi-unreportable levels.’
The Lemai conference in Quebec was a rare chance to discover more about the material history of early cinema. And a reminder to many of us how little we know about, or have even considered, the mechanisms and materials of the first generation of movie apparatus. Now, research by Stephen Herbert, Guy Edmonds and others is finally getting to grips with these vital issues. Many years ago, I spoke at a Bill Douglas Centre conference, and the resulting paper in Multimedia Histories was entitled ‘Why the hardware matters’. It still does – more than ever.
What really happened at early film studios? Surprisingly little detailed empirical research has been done on even the best-known early studios in America, France and Britain. Which makes the theme of this year’s online DOMITOR conference, Crafts, Trades and Techniques of Early Cinema, specially intriguing. My own contribution, in a panel on Friday 20 Nov, is to consider what evidence we have of staffing at Robert Paul’s New Southgate studio and Cecil Hepworth’s at Walton-on-Thames in South London. I’m suggesting that both of these pioneer establishments must have employed considerably more ‘hands’ than we normally imagine. They were in fact the first examples of film production as a prototype ‘new media industry’, marking the transition from 19th century artisanal practices to the new methods required by new technologies of reproduction.
There will be much more new research on display in the conference, available for all to join as a webinar. See programme and UK timings below.
Conference Schedule and Programme
Tuesday, Nov. 17, 16.00 – 18.00
-16.00 Welcome and Introduction -16.15 Film Chemistry, Lab Technique, and Archival Traces -17.10 The Professionalization of Filmmaking
Wednesday, Nov. 18, 16.00 – 18.00
-16.00 Cameras, Projectors, and Trick Photography -16.50 Useful Animation in Early Cinema -17.30 Case Studies from the Media Ecology Project + Tribute to Paul Spehr
Thursday, Nov. 19, 16.00 – 17.00
-16.00 The Politics of Distribution and Exhibition. -16.45 Early Latin American Cinema
Friday, Nov. 20, 16.00-18.30
-16.00 Studio Labour and Organization – -16.50 In the Theatre -17.30 Performers and Performance -18.15 Concluding Remarks and Farewell
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A technical hitch cut me off in mid-interview about my Robert Paul book on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, and I think I can relate to the frustration that Robert Paul must have felt on Friday 21 February 1896. On the previous evening, he had presented his new Theatrograph projector at a ‘conversazione’ – probably what we would call a salon – at his former college, the Finsbury Technical College, in Leonard Street, Shoreditch.
Unfortunately that show didn’t go as well as Paul must have hoped. According to a writer in the journal Lightning (a ‘popular and business review of electricity’ – perhaps the Wired of its day), there was an accident , ‘for which Mr Paul is in no way responsible’. Due to the apparatus being unsteadily mounted, ‘on the hand-wheel being turned to bring successive films into view, the whole picture joggled up and down on the screen’.
Would Paul have been consoled by the same writer having attended a demonstration of the Lumière Cinématographe that very afternoon, where ‘some of the more quickly moving figures were very jerky’? Possibly. What this anonymous observer had witnessed was Day 1 of the new era of projected ‘animated photography’ in Britain – and both machines displayed teething problems. His verdict was that ‘there is little to choose between the processes’, which he was sure could both soon run smoothly.
Eight days later, Paul would again present his Theatrograph, this time at the more imposing Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, and this show seems to have had no steadiness problem. One member of the audience was Lady Harris, wife of the impresario Sir Augustus Harris, described as ‘a dominant figure in the West End Theatre of the 1880s and 90s’. She must have been impressed, since within weeks, Paul’s projectors were booked into both Olympia (showing films ‘in brilliant colours’) and the Alhambra Music Hall in Leicester Square, as well as the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.
Whatever he had intended at the start of the year, racing to complete a projection mechanism that would initially re-use the films that he and Birt Acres had made for the Kinetoscope viewer early in 1895, he was now launched as a West End showman. Soon he would be shooting new films around London – including one taken on Blackfriars Bridge, with his old school, the City of London (now housing J. P. Morgan) just visible in the smoky background https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fABILtla_lE
Talk about snatching victory from – well, a technical hitch…
Hearing recently that my Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema has won the American Theatre Library Association’s 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award for ‘exemplary work in the field of recorded performance’, prompted an attempt to reconstruct Paul’s relationship with the United States. The results are interesting for what they reveal about the lasting tension between British and American perspectives on the pioneer period, and how Paul negotiated this. This also gives me a chance to acknowledge once again the late Richard Brown’s generous contribution to my research on Paul.
It was of course an invitation in 1894 to replicate Edison’s Kinetoscopes for two Greek entrepreneurs newly arrived in London that first got Paul into moving pictures. And eighteen months later, after Edison had refused a proposal to exchange films, he was happy to include Paul’s and Acres’ Rough Sea at Dover in hisbelated attempt to catch up with the European projected picture vogue, pioneered by Lumière and Paul. Rough Sea, now over a year old and its origin unacknowledged,became the hit of Edison’s Broadway show on 23 April 1896. According to the next day’s New York Mail and Express: ‘Then came the waves, showing a scene at Dover pier after a stiff blow. This was by far the best view shown and had to be repeated many times.’
In an American reprint of the paper originally given at the British Kinematograph Society in 1936, Paul added two interesting sentences to the original. One of these, referring to Rough Sea being shown at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, noted that ‘the Armat Vitascope was used to project the pictures’. In fact, Edison’s agents had struck a deal to share profits and rename Thomas Armat’s Phantascope, claiming that the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ had been hard at work on the ‘new invention’, now christened Edison’s Vitascope.
During the most successful years of his film company, Paul’s original electrical instrument business also thrived, with his most successful product, the Unipivot Galvanometer, appearing in 1903. In the following year, this won a gold medal at the St Louis World’s Fair, the first of two such international awards his instruments would win.
There is no evidence that Paul visited America at this time, but in another addition to the US version of his BKS paper, after describing his scientific demonstration films, he recorded having ‘had the pleasure of personally presenting copies of these films to Thomas Edison at Orange, NJ, in 1911’. This visit was most likely connected with launching an American branch of his electrical instrument business. According to a colleague and electronics pioneer, the success of his instrument business led him to ‘set up a branch works in New York’ in 1911. By 1914, Paul was advertising ‘Showrooms and Laboratories at 1 East 42nd Street, New York’, and ‘London and New York’ still appears proudly on his catalogues after the war had forced him to relocate his factory in North London.
We might wonder what relations were like between Edison and Paul at that meeting. They might well have discussed electrical matters. Paul had already abandoned the film business around the beginning of 1910, apparently without making any public announcement. Among his reasons for doing so, must have been Edison’s creation of the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908, to assert control over production and distribution in the United States, and discourage European imports. There is no reference to this in the published versions of the 1936 paper, but with characteristic archival skill, Richard Brown discovered an early draft, which he sent me in late 2019. And here Paul did summarise the US-Europe crisis period (referring to himself in the third person).
The Americans started rather late in film production, and at first R. W. Paul frequently received visits from American showmen who were liberal purchasers of suitable subjects. I have already mentioned the practice of duplicating films in the United States, and at one period the producers there felt the European competition to such an extent that they combined, with the assistance of the Eastman Kodak Company, as makers of film stock, and Edison whose early US patent on perforated film was re-issued to exclude all imported films. The policy was successful until the monopoly was broken by Carl Laemmle and others fighting it with an independent organisation, after which imported pictures were again shown in the United States.
Paul had played an active part in the Paris Conference of 1909, an attempt by European producers to create a common front against the MPPC, which was sabotaged by Pathé’s unilateral withdrawal and by exhibitors’ objections. Although there were other factors that must have influenced his departure from cinema, the loss of the American market was undoubtedly a blow. As recently as 1908, his films had been advertised by an American distributor, Williams, Brown & Earle of Philadelphia, as among the finest available to American exhibitors. Now, until the Edison trust was dissolved in 1915, this market was closed to British producers.
But in 1936, Paul would once again become a proxy protagonist in the long-running controversy over whether William Friese-Greene had been unjustly cheated of his claim to have invented ‘kinematography’ by supporters of Edison. The platform now was the trade journal Motion Picture Herald, edited by Terry Ramsaye, who a decade earlier had written the popular history A Million and One Nights, and given Paul a chapter built around his ‘time machine’ project with H. G. Wells (see earlier blog entries). In June 1936, Ramsaye castigated ‘a certain sector of the British press and conspicuously the Era’ for its continuing efforts to ‘make England the homeland of motion picture invention’. Ramsaye’s target is the promotion of Friese-Greene as the true pioneer, which had become an article of faith among many in Britain and would reach its climax in Muriel Forth’s gullible 1948 biography Close-Up of an Inventor. Friese-Greene had died in in 1921, so bore no responsibility for the extravagant claims made by his supporters, starting only days after his tragic death.
For Ramsaye, Paul is ‘a scientific and expert gentleman who was a pioneering participant of real note in the dawn years of the art’, and Britain’s true pioneer. And if he ‘has enjoyed scant attention in London, his work is well known in America’. Most importantly for Ramsaye, whose history had the blessing of Edison, Paul had acknowledged ‘the mechanisms taken to London from West Orange’ at the beginning of his work. From this dubious premise (Paul’s own cameras and projectors owed little to the Kinetoscope), Ramsaye spins his own fanciful genealogy. Paul supplied equipment to Méliès; Méliès explored all the ‘art capacities of the camera’; and imported Méliès pictures ‘inspired, instructed and spurred American cameramen to contribute to the mastery of Hollywood, ‘to which the studios of the world turn today’.
This battle would re-commence when The Magic Box appeared in 1952, based on Forth’s book and vigorously denounced by Ramsaye. But Paul had died in 1943 and his marginalisation in the British history began in Rachael Low’s 1948 History of the British Film. Friese-Greene’s reputation would be demolished for a generation in a series of articles by Brian Coe in the early 1960s. Yet today, much of this history is open for re-examination, with new access to documents and old prejudices to be reconsidered. And once again, America seems to be where these debates attract serious scholarly and public attention.
Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema (Chicago University Press, 2019). Theater Library Association Awards, online 16 October 22.30 BST from New York Public Library for the Performing Arts