Colourful stories no. 2 – The Kromskop

The road to colour cinematography began with the efforts of those pioneering colour photography itself. For the second part in our series, we look at the work of Frederic Eugene Ives, whose remarkable device the Kromskop was to play a key part in the history.

Frederic Ives (1856-1937) was an American inventor. Best-known for having developed the halftone printing process, he also experimented extensively with colour and stereoscopic (3-D) photography. From 1877 onwards Ives worked on ways of taking and viewing three-colour images with a camera known variously as a Heliochromoscope or Photochromoscope. The result of this experimentation resulted in the Kromskop, first marketed in 1895, a stereoscopic viewer which combined the Photochromoscope images from six monochrome transparencies through colour filters to created a stereoscopic colour image called a Kromogram.

Kromskop camera and viewer

Kromskop camera and viewer, from

Kromskop colour filters

Kromskop colour filters, from

The camera, by a combination of mirrors, prisms and colour filters, took three pairs of images of a given object (an exposure time of a minute was required, which made it impractical for portrait work), respectively red, blue and green on a single plate that measured 2½ x 8 inches. The eventual positive was cut into three and mounted in a folded cardboard frame to form the Kromogram. The three pairs of transparencies were, of course, monochrome, but preserved a record of the alterations in the colour of the object as taken through the three separate filters. The Kromskop itself, by an arrangement of mirrors, coloured glass screens, red, green and blue filters, and a light source, produced a full colour and stereoscopic image.

Kromagram images

Kromagram images, from

Ives believed that his invention formed part of a remarkable triumvirate – the Phonograph, which captured sound; the Kinetoscope, which captured motion pictures; and now the Kromskop, which captured colour:

The Kromskop is an optical instrument which accomplishes for light and color what the Phonograph accomplishes for sound and the Kinetoscope for motion … The Kromskop photograph is … although not a color photograph, a color record, just as the cylinder of the phonograph, although not a cylinder of sound, contains a record of sounds, and the kinetoscope ribbon, although not an animated photograph, contains a record of motion. The phonograph cylinder must be placed in the phonograph before it can be made to reproduce the sounds recorded; the kinetoscope ribbon must pass through the kinetoscope in order to visually reproduce the moving scene; and the Kromogram must be placed in the Kromskop in order to visually reproduce the object photographed.

Frederic Ives, Kromskop Color Photography (1898)

However, the Kromskop and its Kromogram put too much technology between the viewer and the object. Ives elsewhere admitted: ‘this is not the kind of color photography that the world has been looking for … because it does not produce fixed color images which can be framed and hung upon the wall’. It was possible to produce fixed colour prints from Kromskop negatives, but ‘only by so greatly complicating the process as to make it comparatively impracticable’. It was the additive synthesis (as demonstrated by James Clerk Maxwell) that was fundamentally impractical, and was soon to be abandoned as a means of securing photographic still images. However, the Kromskop enjoyed a brief period of popularity, marketed as being ‘invaluable for Evening Parties, At Homes, Conversaziones, Garden Parties &c, &c’. Showmen exhibited it alongside magic lanterns and other such visual marvels, and it caught the eye of some motion picture inventors, among them showman/inventor G.A. Smith, who owned a Kromskop, and would go on to invent Kinemacolor.

Ives established a British company in 1898, the Photochromoscope Syndicate. He took on as an assistant that year one Edward Raymond Turner. The following year Turner left Ives’ employment. Excited by the additive principle expressed through the Kromskop, Turner wanted to see if it could be utilised for cinematography. Turner built and patented his three-colour motion picture system in 1899, the story of which we will tell soon, but this in fact was not the first patent for a motion picture colour system. But you’ll have to wait until part three to learn about that.

Recommended reading:
William Ward, ‘The Newest Marvel of Science’, Pearson’s Magazine, December 1897