Friese-Greene, William 1855 - 1921


William Friese-Greene was a British photographer, chemist and maverick inventor spanning both the Victorian and Edwardian era and credited, by some, as the inventor of cinematography (the recording of photographic images for use in cinema or the use of a film camera to take pictures). He constructed a series of proto-type cameras and pioneered the motion picture camera (patent 10131 – June 1889) in addition to stereoscopic and colour cinematography.

Born in 1855 in Bristol he went to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School. After serving an apprenticeship to the portrait photographer, Maurice Guttenberg, he set his own studio in Bath and later in Bristol, London and Brighton. In 1874 he married Helena Friese. Whilst in Bath he met John Arthur Roebuck Rudge (1837-1903), a maker of magic lanterns. He showed Friese-Greene his ‘Biophantic Lantern’ which was a device that could show seven glass slides in rapid succession thereby giving the illusion of movement. Working together they improved the ‘Biophantic Lantern’ so that it could project photographic plates and created the ‘Biophantascope’. But Friese-Greene realised the limitations of glass plates and began experimenting with celluloid material for motion pictures.

In June 1889 Friese-Greene was issued patent 10131 for an 'improved apparatus for taking photographs in rapid series' this was his ‘Chronophotographic Camera’ which was able to take up to 10 photographs per second using a perforated celluloid film. However because of the cameras’ low frame rate and unreliability the camera wasn’t a commercial success. Later he went onto experiment stereoscopic cameras but again success eluded him. His experimenting and lack of commercial success made him bankrupt in 1891. His businesses often suffered as a result the time he devoted to his experiments in cinematography and with his other inventions. He married his first wife Victoria Marina H. Friese in March 1874, and his second wife Edith Jane Harrison in January 1897.

Friese-Greene went onto experiment with colour photography and its application to motion pictures. His system was called ‘Biocolour’ which was a process the created the illusion of true colour by exposing each alternate frame of ordinary black and white film through two different coloured filters. Each alternate monochrome frame was then stained red or green. However, again the process encountered technical problems. Although it gave a tolerable illusion of true colour it did suffer from a bad flickering effect and red and green fringing when the subject was in rapid motion.

A rival system to Biocolour called Kinemacolour was invented by George Albert Smith (1864 – 1959) and Charles Urban (1867 – 1942) who took Friese-Greene to court claiming that any colour film was an infringement of their earlier patent. Friese-Greene claimed that Smith’s and Urban’s patent didn’t contain enough detail to encompass the Biocolour process. The judge ruled in Urbans’ favour but upon appeal in the House of Lords in 1914 overturned the decision. But due to on-going technical and financial problems Friese-Greene was never able to exploit the process. It would be his son Claude who would go on to develop the Biocolour process.

William Friese-Greene died on May 5th 1921 whilst attending a film and cinema meeting at the Connaught Rooms, Kingsway in London. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery, London.