Colourful stories no. 3 – The first patent

Isensee diagram

Diagram accompanying Hermann Isensee’s 1897 patent, from DEPATISnet

There was colour on film as soon as there was projected film. The Edison Kinetoscope, a peepshow device which introduced commercial motion pictures in 1894 presented too small an image to the viewer for hand-painted colour to be seen distinctively. But once films were shown upon a screen, colours started to be added – including some subjects originally exhibited through the Kinetoscope. Edward Henry Doubell, slide painter at the Royal Polytechnic in London, is known to have painstakingly added colours to Robert Paul films, at a rate of two or three frames per day. Paul showed coloured films at the Alhambra music hall on 8 April 1896, and on 23 April a coloured Serpentine dance was included on the debut programme of the Vitascope projector in New York.

A history of artifically-coloured films would follow, which we shall return to later in this series. For now, we are interested in the dream of the inventors, natural colour. Achieve true colour on the motion picture screen, and fortunes would be made.

And so the history of natural colour cinemaography begins in 1897 with a patent passed on 17 December 1897, in Germany. The inventor was Herman Isensee, and it reads (in translation) as follows:

Imperial Patent Office
Patent Specification
No. 98799
Class: 57: Photography
Hermann Isensee, of Berlin

Device for the Depiction of Coloured Animated Photography
Patented in the German Reich from 17th December 1897

With the help of this device, image projections that could hitherto only be shown in monochrome will, by means of a very quick succession of consecutive frames that are projected in the colours red, green and blue at regular intervals, appear to the eye of the beholder in their true natural colours.

For this purpose a disc with three sectors r, g and b, made up of red, green or indigo blue glass (or else any other suitable films), is placed eccentrically in front of the lens o of a series apparatus.

The movement of this disc is regulated in such a manner that for the duration of a photographic recording a coloured section moves past in front of lens o each time, so that the film strip consists of a regular succession of negative images generated by red, green and blue light-rays.

From these negatives, positives are made and the same are projected with the help of the series apparatus.

During this, in a way similar to the process that takes place during the photographic recording, the red, green, and indigo blue sectors move past in front of the lens, so that on the screen red, green and blue pictures develop in quick succession, in correspondence with the said negatives generated by the coloured rays.

While the known analogous procedure for the attainment of coloured pictures, for example the Ivesian Heliochromy (cf. Eder’s Jahrbuch der Photographie 1891 [Yearbook of Photography 1891], p. 174 ff., and Krone, Die Darstellung der natuerlichen Farben durch Photographie [The Representation of Natural Colours Through Photography], Weimer 1894, p. 103 ff.) involves the successful reproduction of three differently coloured pictures of one object from the same period of time, in this case differently coloured images from consecutive periods of time follow each other with sufficient speed, and it is in such a way that an animated picture in its natural colours is seen by the eye of the beholder.


Appliance for apparatus used for the exhibition of animated photography, for the presentation of images in their natural colours, characterised by the fact that in front of the lens a disc with three light-filters in primary colours necessary for the creation of three-colour pictures moves in such a way that with every new recording, as well as projection of the same, a differently coloured section appears in front of the lens.

Attached 1 sheet of drawings.

(My grateful thanks to Eve for providing the translation)

As will be clear enough from the drawing reproduced above which accompanies the patent, this is not the most detailed of patent specifications. It outlines in general and idealised terms the principle of three primary colours being brought together additively, with the optimistic assumption that this could readily produce a motion picture colour record in the same way that Frederic Ives (inventor of the Kromskop, which employed the principle of ‘Heliochromy’) had demonstrated could be achieved practically for still photography. Nevertheless, it does establish the key idea of using a rotating colour shutter in front of camera and then projector, which others would soon adopt.

There is no evidence to suggest that Isensee had any sort of a working model to back-up his claims, and he disappears from this point on as far as colour cinematography is concerned (though he went on to patent other motion picture devices). Because he only patented his idea in Germany, it had no bearing on the experiments that were to take place in Britain the following year which (unwittingly) took up Isensee’s ideas and led to the first practical results in colour cinematography, in 1899. Which you’ll hear all about next time.

Recommended reading:
Adrian Klein, Colour Cinematography (1936)

Isensee’s patent is available online from DEPATISnet, the online German patent service (search under reference number DE000000098799A).