Friese-Green Biography
  Victorian and Edwardian Photographs - Roger Vaughan Personal Collection

William Edward Green ( Friese-Greene )

1855 - 1921

Collected information from the internet, most of the sources are no longer there, as for the correctness of all this - it is up to you to research this.

William Edward Green (later: Friese-Greene) ( b. Sept. 7, 1855, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Eng. d. May 5, 1921, London ) , British photographer and inventor, sometimes credited with the invention of cinematography.

Friese-Greene constructed a camera ( patent 10131 - June 21 1889 ) for taking a series of photographs on a roll of perforated film moving intermittently behind a shutter, the basic principle of a motion-picture camera. It would appear, however, that the camera was incapable of taking pictures at a sufficient rate for animation, for no successful presentation of moving pictures was given by him, and the credit for a successful cinematographic device must go to Thomas Edison.

Friese-Greene later pioneered stereoscopic and colour cinematography but lacked the technical knowledge necessary to bring his ideas to fruition.

A biography by Ray Allister ( pseud. for Muriel Forth ), Friese-Greene: Close-up of an Inventor ( 1948, reprinted 1972 ), includes photographs from the John Boulting, 1951 film 'The Magic Box', based on this book.

Source: Britannica On Line

English photographer and inventor, born in Bristol, Avon. In the 1880s he designed a camera to expose a sequence of photographs for projection by lantern slides as a moving image, and is thus claimed by some as the English inventor of cinematography; but he did not in fact propose perforated strips of film for either photography or projection. His first successful picture, using celluloid film, was shown in public in 1888.

Robert W. Paul

Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia

Between 1885 and 1890 ...British photographer William Friese-Greene ( 1885-1921 ) builds a series of four prototype motion-picture cameras. The cost of development drives him into bankruptcy and brings him a short sentence in debtors' prison.

Friese-Greene takes out 78 British patents between 1889 and 1921 but none becomes the basis of an industry. He works on stereoscopic film, stage effects and colour film, develops a process for producing photographic cigarette cards and another eventually becomes the first X-ray examination system in Britain.

Constantly fighting to avoid bankruptcy, Friese-Greene was 66 when he attended a meeting of film moguls in London. Alarmed by the animosity between them, he stood up to speak but became incoherent. Helped back to his seat, he slumped forward and was found to be dead. He had just a shilling and 10 pence in his pocket - the price of a cinema ticket at the time.

...and from notice of recent acquisitions at the NMSI

Apparatus and ephemera associated with the Friese-Greene family

William Friese-Greene's reputation has come under considerable scrutiny over the last 50 years. Until the 1950s he was regarded as the father of cinematography, a view reinforced by the film 'The Magic Box'.

Subsequent research has cast doubt on the validity of many of his claims by revealing his reliance on the work of others. However, he remains an important figure in early cinematography and his pioneering work in colour photography is largely unacknowledged.

His son Claude, a distinguished cinematographer, developed one of the early processes of colour cinematography. This collection will enable a reassessment of William Friese-Greene's reputation to be undertaken in a wider context.

Five glass plates by J. A. Rudge, c.1887

John Rudge, an instrument maker from Bath, collaborated with the film pioneer William Friese-Greene to develop the Biophantic Lantern in 1889. These plates are believed to have been used with an enhancement of this machine, the Biophantascope. This acquisition complements our Friese-Greene-related artefacts and strengthens the representation of pre-cinema material in the Cinematography Collection.

Photographer and inventor, born in Bristol, Avon. In the 1880s he designed a camera to expose a sequence of photographs for projection by lantern slides as a moving image, and is thus claimed by some as the English inventor of cinematography; but he did not in fact propose perforated strips of film for either photography or projection. His first successful picture, using celluloid film, was shown in public in 1890.


Born in College Street Bristol on 7th September 1855, William Green was articled as an apprentice to Maurice Guttenberg, a photographer of Queens Road, in 1869. Commercial photography was still in its infancy - in 1851 there were only 50 professional photographers in the whole of the U.K., by 1871 there were nearly 8,000. Young William took to the work like a flash and within six years had set up his own studios in Bath & Bristol, the grandly named 'Photographic Institute'. He married Helena Friese on 24th March 1874 and decided to add her maiden name to his, as he thought plain 'Green' not artistic enough.

It was in Bath that he made the acquaintance of John Arthur Roebuck Rudge, a tall gaunt bearded inventor of magic lanterns. J.A.R. Rudge had devised a latern, the 'Biophantoscope', which could display seven slides in rapid succession, giving the illusion of movement. William found the idea amazing and irrisistible, and started work on his own camera - a camera to record real movement as it occured.

Early one Sunday morning in January 1889, Friese-Greene took his new camera, a box about a foot square with a handle projecting at the side, to Hyde Park. At the west of Apsley Gate, he placed the camera on a tripod and exposed 20 feet of film - his subjects, 'leisurely pedestrians, open-topped buses and hansom cabs with trotting horses'. Then, he rushed to his studio near Piccadilly and laboured into the small hours developing the celluloid film he himself had also invented. His toil was rewarded, when he became the first man to ever witness moving pictures on a screen.

Patent No. 10,131, for a camera with a single lens to record movement was registered on 10th May 1890, but the making of the camera had bankrupt him. To cover his debts, Friese-Greene sold the rights to his patent for 500 pounds though the first renewal fee was never paid and the patent lapsed in 1894. ( the Lumiere brothers patented Le Cinèmatographe in March 1895 ).

Between 1889 and 1921 he took out more than 70 patents for other inventions including:

Coloured Prints, X-Ray & Light Printing on Paper Fabrics

Inkless Printing

Electrical Transmission of Images

Air Cars & Gyroscopically levelling Airships

William Friese-Greene died a pauper in 1921, and on the hour of his funeral, all the cinemas in Britain halted their films and held a two minute silence in belated respect to 'The Father of the Motion Picture'.

Our Father who art in Heaven

by Alex Jaye

Highgate's Eastern cemetery in North London is the last resting place of some of our generations most famous people in all facets of life. Among them is the father of communism Karl Marx; the well known actor Sir Ralph Richardson, even our own notable artist: Sir Sidney Nolen (albeit in an unmarked grave). But the one of most interest to us and who is the father and responsible for all of our lives career is that of William Friese-Greene, the inventor of cinematography. He held the World's master cinematograph patent. Listed as number 16 in the cemetery's official notes his grave can be found in the top left hand corner immediately next to Swan Lane.

Reply to Alex Jaye, January Editon POV

Subject: William Friese-Greene, 'Inventor of Cinematographer'

Dear Sir,

I refer to the item by Alex Jaye in Issue 42 January 1998 of POV.

During the centenary year of cinema 1995 much discussion took place on the rival claims of different nations to have 'Invented the Kinematograph'. Fortunately it is now generally recognised that the American emphasis on Edison or the British on William Friese-Greene were the outmoded products of an earlier era of extreme nationalism. I think the clearest statement on the situation was set down by the British themselves in the book 'The great British Picture Show' by George Perry. I have enclosed a copy of the relevant chapter which sets the picture straight.

Roger Seccombe ACS - Coora

'William Friense-Greene's tombstone describes him as 'The inventor of Kinematography'. Friese-Green was an enthusiastic dabbler who produced many inventions, few of which could be developed beyond the initial idea. He built a camera that was capable of taking up to half a dozen pictures a second - too slow to give a complete illusion of movement, He also produced in 1889, a camera using celluloid film, but there is no evidence that it worked.

Friese-Greene never made any financial success from his cinema inventions and drifted through a series of bankruptcies, eventually falling dead after delivering an incoherent speech to a meeting convened in 1921 to consider the prevailing crisis in the film industry'.

Editor's Note: January '98

Friese-Greene, according to the article quoted, did not perfect the projection of images but he nevertheless knew the theory and attempted to put it into practice. However as quoted from the publication, Louis and Auguste Lumiere projected images to a paying audience in a Paris Cafe on December 28th 1885. Their mechanisms included a claw movement which drove the film through a projector gate where it stopped momentarily showing moving images on the screen.

Editor's Response: March '98
'The Great British Picture Show' blatantly discredits Film Pioneer...

Basing views from 'today' on what cinematography 'should' have been like in those early days is the most absurd thing that I have ever read. You have to make money out of your invention for it to be creditable? There has to be a 'Claw movement to make it acceptable ?- Six frames a second does not cut the definition of motion? Who set these ridiculous conditions in determining what a film camera is ?

What lunacy! - Try this on for size: - Many Australian films and Inventions don't make money! and many Cinema projectors do not have claw mechanisms. If anyone cannot see motion, in a film projected at 6 frames a second then a trip to the Optometrist is in order. Many telephone video conference linkups, have a similar frame rate but satisfy the users for creating enough movement to make it feel live. Many computer program 'movies' have a lesser frame rate.

These articles have chastised William Friese-Greene - they have cast him as an idiot, a dabbler, someone who even, while he was dying made a public fool out of himself. What a callus criticism of one of the founders of our industry - I don't know if the guy invented the film-camera - or not. (Yes let's use plain english). Moving film with images on it - sounds like a film camera to me... What makes my blood curdle is George Perry's 'attitude' to all this. Anyone would have to be a bit dubious on the authority on his research from all the bagging and 'Tall Poppy syndrome' tactics used by Perry.

Far as I am concerned, I will go to London and visit that grave site and think of that exciting era of invention and know that I stand where one of our great forefathers was put to rest with the knowledge that his dream lives on forever. Who gives a hoot if the guy invented the thing or not - the point here is that the guy devoted his life to film and should be respected for that.

Chris Hilton-Wood, Editor POV


Misadventures with ultraviolet light

Philip Jackson (
Fri, 7 Jul 1995

I haven't finished rebuilding my UV exposure unit (I still have to install a fan and am also still waiting on another tube and some special eye protection), but in appreciation for the useful information supplied by members of the list I'm posting a 'light' account of an experiment that definitely falls into the 'don't try this at home' category. It comes from an article on 'The Magic and Mystery of Photography' by J. A. Randall (Photographic News 25 Sept. 1896, p. 613). William Friese-Green is remembered today principally as a British inventor of the cinema who died impoverished and largely forgotten in 1921.

Luminous Eyes. In 1889, Mr Friese Green made the startling discovery that it was possible to obtain an image upon a sensitive plate by emanations from the human eye. Mr Greene had an electric arc of 2,000 candle-power, at which he gazed with one eye for the space of fifteen seconds. Switching off the light he took a very quick plate and held it close to the exposed eye for a minute or more; on developing the plate, a spot came up which, when put under a microscope, showed a distinct image of the arc.

Mr Greene attempted no explanation of this phenomenon, wisely leaving it until other experiments were forthcoming. He, however, strongly advised no repetition of the experiment with a 2,000 candle-power arc, for he had suffered from a black spot hovering about his retina for days afterward, this fact indicating that the retina is the source of the phenomenon. The matter dropped, mainly owing to the failure of others to obtain a a similar effect, the general opinion being that Mr Friese Greene possessed an eye of particular composition.

Philip Jackson

Philip Jackson (
Fri, 7 Jul 1995

Previous message: Philip Jackson: 'Misadventures with ultraviolet light'

'The ordinary clinical picture of photokeratitis follows a characteristic course. After exposure, there is a period of latency varying somewhat inversely with the amount of exposure. The latent period may be as short as 30 min or as long as 24 hr, but is typically 6 to 12 hr. Conjunctivitis, often accompanied by an erythema of skin surrounding the eyelids, is associated with the sensation of a foreign body or 'sand' in the eyes, varying degrees of photophobia (intolerance to light), lacrimation (tearing), and blepharospasm (spasm of the lid muscles). Corneal pain can be severe. The individual is usually incapacitated for some period of time. These acute symptoms usually last from 6 to 24 hr, and almost all discomfort disappears within 48 hr. Very rarely does exposure result in permanent damage.' (UV-A: Biological Effects of Ultraviolet Radiation with Emphasis on Human Response to Longwave Ultraviolet, pp. 177-8).

Still, better safe than sorry. Walter B. Woodbury, in 'The Electric Light in Photography: A Warning,' (The Year-book of Photography and Photographic News Almanac for 1883, p. 87), relates his experience of temporary blindness after spending four or five hours printing ordinary silver chloride paper with an arc light in 1866: 'I was told that the white part of the eye was simply a mass of blood.' The next day Woodbury regained his sight, but at the time of writing 'my sight has rapidly deteriorated, not in the usual way, that is called old sight coming on, but in the form of a white glare or spot covering the centre of vision, so that, as I write this, the word I am writing only becomes visible when I get to the next one, spectacles being of little avail. Reading has also become entirely out of the question. I can only conclude that the centre of the retina has got damaged by the image of the strong arc lights, much in the same way as a piece of brown paper is set on fire by condensing the sun's rays on to it."

The misadventures of William Friese-Greene and Walter B. Woodbury almost belong in one of Hilaire Belloc's cautionary tales, if this 'light' subject wasn't so serious. I don't mean to put you off, but but anybody using intense artificial sources of ultraviolet light should be aware of the dangers.

Take care,
Philip Jackson

Brian Coe's William Friese-Greene and the origins of cinematography, Photographic Journal, UK., March and April 1962, is a careful investigation into Friese-Greene's claims.

Source: Oxford Companion to Film, 1976

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