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William Friese-Greene

7 September 1855 - 5 May 1921

The son of a metalworker, Friese-Greene became apprentice to a photographer, and by 1875 was a rising portrait photographer.
Expanding to four studios, his business was very successful, and he could probably have lived a very comfortable life if it were not for his obsession with moving picture formats.
It was 1886 when he first started to experiment with motion, but soon found that the traditional glass plates would never be practical.
He first tried oiled paper, but in 1887 hit upon the idea of using celluloid as a base for the images.
His chronophotographic camera was patented in 1889, and was capable of taking up to ten frames per second.
Although there were many pioneers working on similar inventions, it is certainly arguable that he was the first to produce some sort of working model.
In fact, the frame rate was too low, and the device too unreliable to achieve any lasting commercial success, and it was this problem that plagued him throughout his life.
In the early 1890's he worked on a stereoscopic 3d version of his camera, again years ahead of his time, and again without commercial success.
His inventions took up an increasing amount of his time, and his business suffered. He was declared bankrupt in 1891.
However, the failure of his marriage, financial ruin, and even a spell in debtor's prison failed to stem Friese-Greene's obsession.
He continued to work on a two-strip colour process called Biocolour.

In 1921, a meeting took place in London to debate the future of the British film industry,  including important issues of the price paid by exhibitors and the number of films which the industry could sustain.
It was the culmination of a long and bitter dispute. Producers, exhibitors, and manufacturers were represented.
An old man got up to speak. He spoke quietly, but with deep emotion. Unfortunately, many could only hear small sections of what he was saying.

This great industry...  A British industry...
A matter of honour... Our responsibility...
The future... The universal language...
You must hear me... I have given my life...

He started to cry and became incoherent. He was helped to his seat.
It was some moments until someone noticed that he had slumped forward in his seat, and was still. William Friese-Greene was dead.
In his pockets they found a formula for a colour filter and a soft leather purse containing one shilling and tenpence.
It was all the money he had in the world. It was also, coincidentally, the cost of a cinema seat.


His gravestone in Highgate Cemetery reads:


WILLIAM FRIESE-GREENE
THE INVENTOR OF KINEMATOGRAPHY

HIS GENIUS BESTOWED UPON HUMANITY
THE BOON OF COMMERCIAL CINEMATOGRAPHY
OF WHICH HE WAS THE FIRST INVENTOR AND PATENTEE