William Friese-Greene

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William Friese-Greene
Born(1855-09-07)7 September 1855
Bristol, England
Died5 May 1921(1921-05-05) (aged 65)
Connaught Rooms, London, England
Resting placeHighgate Cemetery
OccupationInventor, photographer
Known forMotion pictures, printing, photography
Spouse(s)Victoria Mariana Helena Friese, Edith Harrison
The Friese-Greene grave in Highgate Cemetery

William Friese-Greene (born William Edward Green, 7 September 1855 – 5 May 1921) was a prolific English inventor and professional photographer. He is principally known as a pioneer in the field of motion pictures, creating a series of cameras in the period 1888–1891 with which he shot moving pictures in London. He went on to patent an early two-colour filming process in 1905. His inventions in the field of printing – including photo-typesetting and a method of printing without ink – brought him wealth, as did his chain of photographic studios. However, he spent everything he earned on inventing, going bankrupt three times and being jailed once, before dying in poverty.

Early life[edit]

William Edward Green was born on 7 September 1855, in Bristol.[1] He studied at the Queen Elizabeth's Hospital school.[2] In 1871 he was apprenticed to the Bristol photographer Marcus Guttenberg,[3] but later successfully went to court to be freed early from the indentures of his seven-year apprenticeship.[2] He married the Swiss Helena Friese (born Victoria Mariana Helena Friese[4]) on 24 March 1874, and in a remarkable move for the era, decided to add her maiden name to his surname. In 1877 he set up his own studio in Bath, and by 1881 had expanded his business with more studios in Bath, Bristol and Plymouth.[5]

Cinematic inventor[edit]

Experiments with magic lanterns[edit]

In Bath he came into contact with John Arthur Roebuck Rudge. Rudge was a scientific instrument maker who also worked with electricity and magic lanterns to create popular entertainments.[6] Rudge built what he called the Biophantic Lantern, which could display seven photographic slides in rapid succession, producing the illusion of movement.[7] It showed a sequence in which Rudge (with the invisible help of Friese-Greene) apparently took off his head. Friese-Greene was fascinated by the machine and worked with Rudge on a variety of devices over the 1880s, various of which Rudge called the Biophantascope.[8] Moving his base to London in 1885, Friese-Greene realised that glass plates would never be a practical medium for continuously capturing life as it happens and began to experiment with the new Eastman paper roll film, made transparent with castor oil, before turning his attention to experimenting with celluloid as a medium for motion picture cameras.[9]

Movie camera[edit]

On 21 June 1889, Friese-Greene was issued patent no. 10131 for his camera.[10] It was apparently capable of taking up to ten photographs per second using paper and celluloid film. A report on the camera was published in the British Photographic News on 28 February 1890. On 18 March, Friese-Greene sent a clipping of the story to Thomas Edison, whose laboratory had been developing a motion picture system, with a peephole viewer, christened the Kinetoscope. The report was reprinted in Scientific American on 19 April.[11] Friese-Greene worked on a series of moving picture cameras until early 1891, but although many individuals recount seeing his projected images privately, he did not ever give a successful public projection of moving pictures. In 1890 he developed a camera with Frederick Varley to shoot stereoscopic moving images. The camera ran at a slower frame rate, and although the 3-D arrangement images worked, there are no records of projection.[12] Friese-Greene's experiments with motion pictures were to the detriment of his other business interests and in 1891 he was declared bankrupt. To cover his debts he had already sold the rights to the 1889 moving picture camera patent for £500 (£60,000 in 2016 terms). The renewal fee was never paid and the patent lapsed.[13]

Colour film[edit]

Friese-Greene's later exploits were in the field of colour in motion pictures. From 1903 he lived in Brighton where there were a number of experimenters developing still and moving pictures in colour. Initially working with William Norman Lascelles Davidson, Friese-Greene patented a two-colour moving picture system using prisms in 1905. He and Davidson gave public demonstrations of this in January[14] and July 1906[15] and Friese-Greene held screenings at his photographic studio.[16][17]

He also experimented with a system which he called "Biocolour". This process produced the illusion of true colour by exposing each alternate frame of ordinary black-and-white film stock through two or three different coloured filters. Each alternate frame of the monochrome print was then stained red or green (and/or blue). Although the projection of Biocolour prints did provide an impression of true colour, it suffered from noticeable flickering and red and green fringing when the subject was in rapid motion, as did the more popular and famous system, Kinemacolor.

In 1911, George Albert Smith and Charles Urban filed a lawsuit against Friese-Greene, claiming that the Biocolour process infringed upon Smith's Kinemacolor patents, despite the fact that Friese-Greene had both patented and demonstrated his work before Smith. Urban was granted an injunction against Biocolour in 1912, but the Sussex-based, flamboyant racing driver Selwyn Edge decided to help Friese-Greene by funding an appeal to the High Court. This overturned the original verdict on the grounds that Kinemacolor made claims for itself which it could not deliver. Urban fought back and pushed it up to the House of Lords, who in 1915 upheld the decision of the High Court.[18] The decision benefited nobody. For Urban it was a case of hubris because now he could no longer exercise control over his own system, so it became worthless. For Friese-Greene, the arrival of the war and personal poverty meant there was nothing more to be done with colour for some years.

His son Claude Friese-Greene continued to develop the system with his father, after whose death in the early 1920s he called it "The Friese-Greene Natural Colour Process" and shot with it the documentary films "The Open Road", which offer a rare portrait of 1920s Britain in colour.[19][20] These were featured in a BBC series The Lost World of Friese-Greene and then issued in a digitally restored form by the BFI on DVD in 2006.[19]


On 5 May 1921 Friese-Greene – now a largely forgotten figure – attended an important and stormy meeting of the cinema trade at the Connaught Rooms in London. The meeting had been called to discuss the current poor state of British film distribution and was chaired by Lord Beaverbrook. Disturbed by the tone of the proceedings, Friese-Greene got to his feet to speak. The chairman asked him to come forward onto the platform to be heard better, which he did, appealing for the two sides to come together. Shortly after returning to his seat, he collapsed. People came to his aid and took him outside, but he died almost immediately of heart failure.[21]

Given his dramatic death, surrounded by film industry representatives who had almost entirely forgotten about his role in motion pictures, there was a spasm of collective shock and guilt. A very grand funeral was staged for him, a two minute silence was observed in some cinemas and an fund was raised to commission the famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to design a memorial for his grave, however his memorial is not designed by Lutyens. This memorial describes him as "The Inventor of Kinematography", a term William Friese-Greene never used in talking about his achievements. Indeed, he often spoke generously about other workers in the field of capturing movement.[22] He was buried in the eastern section of London's Highgate Cemetery, just south of the entrance and visible from the street through the railings.[23] His second wife, Edith Jane, died a few months later of cancer[24] and is buried with him.


In 1951 a biopic was made, starring Robert Donat, as part of the Festival of Britain. The film, The Magic Box, was not shown until the festival was nearly over and only went on full release after it had finished. Despite the all-star cast and much publicity, it was a costly box office flop.[25] Domankiewicz and Herbert have written, "He was the subject of a romantic and unreliable biography, Friese-Greene, Close-Up of an Inventor,[16] which was then turned into an even more misleading film, The Magic Box."[20] Nonetheless, Martin Scorsese has many times Cited it as one of his favourite films, and one that inspired him.[26]

Despite a campaign by Bristol photographer Reece Winstone for the retention of Friese-Greene's birthplace for use as a Museum of Cinematography, among other purposes, it was demolished by Bristol Corporation in 1958 to provide parking space for six cars.[27]

Plaque at Middle Street, Brighton

Premises in Brighton's Middle Street where Friese-Greene shared workshop space in 1905 are often wrongly described as his home. They bear a plaque in a 1924 design by Eric Gill commemorating Friese-Greene's achievements, wrongly stating that it is the place where he invented cinematography. The plaque was unveiled by Michael Redgrave, who had appeared in The Magic Box, in September 1957. A modern office building a few yards away is named Friese-Greene House. Other plaques include the 1930s Odeon Cinema in Kings Road, Chelsea, London, with its iconic facade, which carries high upon it a large sculpted head-and-shoulders medallion of "William Friese-Greene" and his years of birth and death. There is a bronze statue of him at Pinewood Studios.[28]

In 2006 the BBC ran a series of programmes called The Lost World of Friese-Greene, presented by Dan Cruickshank about Claude Friese-Greene's road trip from Land's End to John o' Groats, entitled The Open Road, which he filmed from 1924 to 1926 using the Biocolour process.[29] Modern television production techniques meant they were able to remove the issues of flickering and colour fringing around moving objects, which Kinemacolor and Biocolour had when projected. The result was a unique view of Britain in colour in the mid-1920s.[30]

William Friese-Greene was more or less banished to obscurity by film historians from the 1960s onwards, but new research is leading to a rehabilitation of his reputation and a better understanding of his achievements and his influence on the technical development of cinema.[31][32][33]


  1. ^ "Friese-Greene, William (1855–1921) Biography". BFI Screenonline. Retrieved 31 October 2017.
  2. ^ a b Davis, Bertram (March 1947). "WILLIAM FRIESE GREENE". The Elizabethan. XVIII: 10–14.
  3. ^ Cosens, Ron (29 December 2017). "Marcus Guttenberg 1828 – 1891". Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland 1840 to 1940. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  4. ^ Friese-Greene, Helena. "Helena Friese-Greene (The Common Room) Page 1 RootsChat.Com". www.rootschat.com. Retrieved 16 December 2018.
  5. ^ "Victorian Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland 1840-1940".
  6. ^ "John Arthur Roebuck Rudge". Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  7. ^ "The Biophantic Lantern". Catalogue des appareils cinématographiques de la Cinémathèque française et du CNC. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  8. ^ "Collection Will Day: les débuts du cinéma anglais". 1895, revue d'histoire du cinéma. 1997: 162, 163.
  9. ^ "Celluloid and photography, part 3: The beginnings of cinema". National Science and Media Museum blog. Retrieved 1 May 2020.
  10. ^ "Friese-Greene, William (1855-1921)". Screen Online. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  11. ^ Braun, Marta, (1992) Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), p. 190, Chicago: University of Chicago Press ISBN 0-226-07173-1; Robinson, David, (1997) From Peepshow to Palace: The Birth of American Film, p. 28, New York and Chichester, West Sussex, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-10338-7
  12. ^ Zone, Ray (2014). Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838–1952. University Press of Kentucky. p. 59. ISBN 9780813145891.
  13. ^ Breverton, Terry (2012). Breverton's Encyclopedia of Inventions: A Compendium of Technological Leaps, Groundbreaking Discoveries and Scientific Breakthroughs that Changed the World. Hachette. ISBN 9781780873404.
  14. ^ Talbot, Frederick (1912). Moving Pictures. London: William Heinemann. p. 295.
  15. ^ "Novelties at the Convention". Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette. 2 August 1906.
  16. ^ a b Ray Allister (pseudonym for Muriel Forth) (1948) Friese-Greene, Close Up of An Inventor, Marsland Publications, London
    (reprinted by Arno Press Cinema Program (1972) [Facsimile, Hardcover] ISBN 0-405-03908-5)
  17. ^ "Cinematography in Colours". British Journal of Photography: 1033. 28 December 1906.
  18. ^ Fisher, David (2012). Cinema-by-Sea. Brighton: Terra Media. pp. 141–146.
  19. ^ a b "Watch The Open Road - BFI Player". BFI Player. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  20. ^ a b "Who's Who of Victorian Cinema". www.victorian-cinema.net. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  21. ^ "Inquiry Into Death of Mr Friese Greene". Dundee Evening Telegraph. 10 May 1926. p. 6.
  22. ^ "Croydon Camera Club meeting". British Journal of Photography. 43: 703. 11 December 1896.
  23. ^ Historic England. "Tomb of William Friese-Greene in Highgate (Eastern) Cemetery (1378873)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  24. ^ "Death of Mrs Friese Greene". Bath Chronicle. 23 July 1921. p. 26.
  25. ^ Film and the Festival of Britain 1951
  26. ^ "Martin Scorsese's Hugo inspired by The Magic Box". Robert Donat. 2 December 2011. Retrieved 23 October 2018.
  27. ^ Winstone, Reece (1972). Bristol As It Was 1956–1959. Reece Winstone Archive and Publishing. pp. 57–59. ISBN 0-900814-39-X.
  28. ^ "Diana Thomson FRBS". British Society of Sculptors. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  29. ^ The Open Road (2007) British Universities Film & Video Council
  30. ^ The Lost World of Friese-Greene (2006) British Universities Film & Video Council, [1]
  31. ^ Fisher, David (2012). Cinema-By-Sea. Brighton: Terra Media.
  32. ^ "William Friese-Greene & Me". William Friese-Greene & Me. Retrieved 23 October 2018.
  33. ^ William Friese-Greene & The Art of Collaboration, 24 April 2018, retrieved 23 October 2018

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