Once hailed as the "Inventor of Kinematography", William Friese-Greene's reputation has waned over the years to the point that he is no longer considered a leading force in the creation and development of motion picture technology.
The decline of his reputation stems from the fact that claims of his cinematic innovation and mastery are largely unsubstantiated.
What can reliably be said about him is that he was a prolific photographer and a tireless exponent of moving pictures during the infancy of cinema, experimenting with motion picture devices of questionable performance and utility.
Friese-Greene's claims to inventive genius were repeated and exaggerated by British patriots seeking a figurehead for British cinema during the immediate post-war period of the 1940s and early '50s. Theirs was a much romanticized view, shared by the likes of Ray Allister, who wrote a rose-tinted biography of Friese-Greene entitled Close-Up of an Inventor (1948), and John Boulting who directed a film adaption of Allister's biography called The Magic Box, which was created specifically for the 1951 Festival of Britain.
William Edward Greene was born in Bristol on 7 September 1855 to a Bristol metalworker. He became known as Friese-Greene following his marriage to Helena Friese in 1874.
After leaving school in 1869, he was apprenticed to Maurice Guttenberg, a photographer of Queen's Road specializing in portrait work. He conducted his early photographic experiments at his home near Christ Church, Clifton. Within six years had set up his own studios in Bath and Bristol under the name of The Photographic Institute.
Friese-Greene first became associated with animated pictures around 1880, following his collaboration with J. A .R. Rudge, an instrument maker based in Bath. Rudge had adapted the magic lantern to create an illusion of movement through a process he described as "dissolving views". Friese-Greene prepared a series of lantern slides for use in this new lantern. The lantern was designed to show seven slides in succession. The movement of the slides was intermittent. While they were moving, a scissors-like shutter of ground glass partially interrupted the light, making one slide dissolve into the next. Patented in 1884, the Rudge lantern, as it would become known, was enthusiastically demonstrated by Friese-Greene as his own invention.
The following year, Friese-Greene partnered with Esme Collings, a pioneering cinematographer based in Brighton, and the pair opened commercially successful shops in London. However, within a few years, a business dispute led to the collapse of the partnership and by the late 1880s Friese-Greene had teamed up with London engineers Mortimer Evans and Frederick Varley.
Between the years 1888-91, Friese-Greene and his associates patented cameras that, in Varley's words, aimed to "convey the idea of life and motion", but, in practice, these were not successful. Despite dubious claims made by various biographers in later years, the Varley/Friese-Greene cameras were incapable of taking pictures at sufficient speed to produce a true moving picture effect. They were, however, similar in design to the successful motion picture cameras that were developed in subsequent years by their rivals.
In 1889, Friese-Greene famously used a stereo camera made by Frederick Varley to film footage in Hyde Park. While this may have been the first stereo cine roll camera ever built, there is no actual record that a satisfactory projection was given.
In 1891, Friese-Greene was declared bankrupt, which forced him to sell almost all of his equipment. With the exception of 1893, when he patented a camera/projector that was virtually identical to Varley's stereo camera, little is heard of him again until 1896, by which time functional motion picture cameras and projectors had already been invented; among these was Louis Lumiere's Cinematographe camera/projector, the first to project moving pictures to a paying audience, at Paris in 1895.
Around 1898, Friese-Greene began to experiment with colour cinematography. From his Middle Street studio in Brighton, he worked on a two-colour additive process, in which colour-sensitive black and white film was shot and projected through alternating red-orange and blue-green filters. This gave an illusion of true colour, but suffered from flickering and red and green fringing.
In 1905, Friese-Greene patented the process, which he called Biocolour. While this pre-dated G A Smith's patent for a similar process known as Kinemacolour by a year, Friese-Greene soon found that his system was overshadowed and superseded by the more successful Kinemacolour. In 1913, he challenged Smith's patent, at that time owned by Charles Urban, which eventually resulted in a ruling in his favour, followed by the subsequent decline of Kinemacolour – though Friese-Greene failed to capitalize on this success.
William Friese-Greene worked obsessively on colour processes until his death. He died of a heart attack on 5 May 1921 while talking at a film industry meeting about the crisis of British cinema. This dramatic event – the old inventor was found with only one shilling and ten pence in his pocket (equivalent to £3 today) – resulted in an outpouring of overblown tributes from an industry laden with guilt, remorseful at its indifference to the early benefactors of cinema. In an attempt to make amends, the British motion picture industry funded an elaborate funeral for Friese-Greene, together with a grandiose monument in Highgate Cemetery, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and inscribed with the words:
"William Friese Greene | The Inventor of Kinematography | His genius bestowed upon humanity | The boon of commercial kinematography | Of which he was the first inventor and patentee".
It was this ostentatious funeral that inspired Ray Allister to write her inaccurate biography in later life. Indeed, it could be argued that the funeral was largely responsible for the mythical dramatization of Friese-Greene's achievements.
While he was not the inventor of cinema, as once held, Friese-Greene's abiding achievement was his indefatigable contribution to the development of the concept of cinema during the late 1880s and early 1890s – which, in turn, contributed to the creation of the British film industry.