Motion picture cameras

Chaplin's camera

You may remember the news a while ago about Charlie Chaplin’s camera coming up for auction. This will be at Christie’s in London on 25 July, which is part of a large sale of vintage motion picture camera equipment. Some enjoy this sort of stuff more than others, but the online catalogue is displaying some remakable rarities, including an Urban Bioscope from 1903 (estimate £300-500), a Kinemacolor camera (£1,000-1,500), and a 60mm Demeny-Gaumont camera (£10,000-15,000), while the Chaplin Bell & Howell will set you back £70,000-90,000. There are viewings from 21 July up to the day of the auction.

Rumour has it this will be the last Christie’s camera sale. There don’t seem to be the collectors around for cameras and projectors like these as there used to be, and Christie’s (so I am told) will be using space and resources for other, presumably more profitable things. What’ll happen to the market for vintage cinema technology, I don’t know, but Christie’s scholarly and reliable descriptions of some often extremely rare objects are going to be lost – if the rumours are true.

Before the Nickelodeon

Before the Nickelodeon

The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is evidence of a growing trend among academic publishers to make some of their books available electronically, both by subscription, and for some older titles, for free.

That’s what’s happened with University of California Press, which has made some 2,000 books available online via e-Scholarship Editions. Most of these are available only the university staff and students, but a handful have been made freely available for the public. Among them is one of the key early film studies texts, and is strongly recommended, not just for its own sake but for the very user-friendly way in which it has been made accessible.

Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (1991) is a biography of Edwin S. Porter, but also very much more than a biography. He places the story of the Edison filmmaker, producer of The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Life of an American Fireman (1903), within the context of film production and exhibition at the end of nineteenth century and into the twentieth, and within broader socio-cultural contexts. The result is a rich, multilayered account of the birth of American film with Porter as the key with which to unlock the history. This modern classic has been hugely influential on modern early film studies. It is also handsomely illustrated and very readable. It is freely available as chapterised web pages, complete with illustrations, notes, appendices and hyperlinked index i.e. find the term, and the link takes you to that page in the ‘book’.

With thanks to David Pierce for pointing this out to me. I’m going to be on the look out for more.

Researching patents

Hale’s Tours patent diagram

Among the many remarkable research resources available online for those interested in the technical aspects of early and silent cinema, some of the most important are patent records. There are three major sites:

Google Patents

Still in Beta mode, this enables you to search across 7 million US patents, from the 1790s up to last year. The records come from the United States Patgent and Trademark Office (see below), and the information is all in the public domain. You can search for patent number, inventor, assigneee, classification or date. It helps to know something about the patent process to get the best results, and don’t search for a product name – these rarely feature in patent descriptions. Search results provide the patent number etc, plus a copy of the patent document itself – Abstract, Drawing, Description and Claims.

US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)

The patent data and images on Google Patents all derive from the USPTO Patent Full-Text and Image Database. This is an alternative search option, better suited for professionals and research experts. As with Google, it only lists US patents.


For European patents, including British, you have to go to the Europe Patent Office’s esp@cenet service. From the main site you choose your country of interest: Britain is The search options are more or less the same as above, but care should be taken over searching by patent number, for which you need to add a country code and year.

Here are two examples to try out:

George Hale’s 1905 design for a a film show is a mocked-up railway carriage which rocked to and fro, marketed as Hale’s Tours (US patent 800100) [illustrated above]

George Albert Smith’s 1906 patent for a motion picture colour system, later to be called Kinemacolor (Patent no. 26671, or GB190626671)

British Silent Cinema Festival

The British Silent Cinema Festival hasn’t published its full programme as yet, but there is a guide to screenings and presentations which gives a good overview. The theme of the festival is Underworld: Crime and Deviancy in the British Silent Film, and it is being held at the Broadway, Nottingham, 26-29 April. The festival, co-organised by the Broadway and the BFI, is in its tenth year (time has flown…), and as usual it will feature a mixture of screenings, papers and special presentations in the informal manner which the festival has established so successfully for itself. Anyway, here’s the blurb:

Underworld: crime and deviancy in the British Silent Film

26 – 29 April 2007

Where did the crime film originate? Joseph von Sternberg’s silent masterpiece Underworld (1927) [illustrated] is often cited as the first gangster film and the prototype for the genre, spawning the crime thrillers of the 30s, film noir of the 40s and the more recent mob films like The Godfather and Goodfellas. But what came before that landmark film? This year’s British silent film festival examines the antecedents of the crime film; unearthing rare glimpses of master criminals and serial killers, legendary detectives and international terrorists. Looking at adaptations from some of the best-known crime writers, Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer, Edgar Wallace, we uncover crimes of passion, politically motivated crime, and crimes concealing Society’s dark secrets. Drawing on the extensive collections of the BFI National Archive, we will also look at both true crime, featuring Nottingham-born villain Charlie Peace and John Lee ‘the Man They Couldn’t Hang’ and crimes of the imagination, from the first ever crime film to Hitchcock’s Ripperesque tale of the London fog, The Lodger.

Screenings and presentations:

  • True Crime on Film: a history of real-life crime films from the earliest days including Mitchell and Kenyon’s The Arrest of Goudie and The Life story of Charles Peace.
  • Crime in silent fiction film: a history of crime stories including the recently discovered first ever crime film Arrest of a Pickpocket (1895) to Hitchcock’s classic The Lodger (1926).
  • Special live cinema event in the atmospheric surroundings of the medieval St Peter’s Church – Hitchcock’s serial killer mystery, The Lodger.
  • British star, Clive Brook in Joseph Von Sternberg’s rarely screened masterpiece Underworld (1927).
  • The First Born (1928) actor/director Miles Mander stars in this society shocker with co-star Madeleine Carroll (39 Steps).
  • Edgar Wallace’s tale of international terrorism The Four Just Men (George Ridgewell, 1921) with introduction by Wallace expert Jeremy Jago.
  • Classic crime series The Mystery of Dr Fu Manchu and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Fred Paul’s macabre Grand Guignol stories.
  • Rarely screened fragments of Britain’s only surviving silent serial, Ultus: The Man from the Dead.
  • Secrets and lies in Victorian England cause criminal deeds in a 1920 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
  • Bulldog Drummond’s Third Round (1925) directed by Sidney Morgan and starring Jack Buchanan in the title role.
  • Ellie Norwood, one of the great interpreters of our most famous detective Sherlock Holmes on film and a screening of Holmes feature The Sign of Four (1923).
  • Early films of the Salvation Army to mark William Booth’s origins in Nottingham and his connection to Broadway.
  • The International Women Pioneer Film Makers’ Project – presentations and discussion around this international research programme.

Excellent stuff. One film in particular to pick out is Miles Mander’s The First Born (1928), a genuine undiscovered classic, mature in theme and sophisticated in style, which hasn’t had the public profile is deserves largely because the surviving print is marginally incomplete. That, and the fact that it doesn’t turn up in any of the film histories. Shame on them, and well done to the festival’s organisers for having unearthed it.

Booking information from the festival website.

Mother knew best

At another visit to the second-hand book shop I was pleased to find another memoir of a London childhood with excellent material on seeing films before the First World War. Dorothy Scannell’s Mother Knew Best: An East End Childhood (1974) tells of her life before and after the war as one of ten children of a Poplar plumber, earning £2 a week. This passage on Saturday cinema-going is eloquent on how people completely carried away by what they saw on the screen (in this case, her younger sister Marjorie):

We went to the ‘pictures’ on Saturday mornings. The Picture Palace was like a huge garage with dirty red doors opposite Mrs Crutchington’s shop and it cost a ha’penny. It was called the Star Picture Palace and we would all cheer when the pictures finally started for the screen was a long time flickering and shaking and tearing itself in two with brief glimpses of the previous week’s serial before it settled down, and whenever it broke down during the performance, which was often, we would all boo loudly. A lady played the piano, sad music, frightening music, and happy music according to how the film was progressing and what was taking place. Because we had so few ‘arrants’ to do, we were nearly always the first ones there and so sat in the front row where the cowboys were nine feet tall, the horses hunched up in the middle and the heroine had a ‘Dish ran away with the spoon’ face.

Marjorie was the most terrible person to accompany to the pictures … We all left the world mentally, but she left it physically as well in a sense. When the heroine was tied to the railway line, and tried to fight her captors, Marjorie would fight in her seat. When the poor mother was pleading with the wicked landlord for her starving children, Marjorie was on her knees pleading too. Her screams of terror when the heroine was about to be tortured seemed louder to me than the frightening music being played by the lady pianist and I would thump Marjorie to bring her back to the world. All in vain, she never felt or heard me, and I ceased going to the pictures on Saturdays long before Marjorie did, for she could wait patiently until the next episode of an exciting serial. Rather than wait and wonder, I decided not to go. I hated serials, I just had to see a complete picture, and most of the films shown to the children had been cut and made into serials, for by chopping the films into little bits they would last the Picture Palace for weeks and weeks. I always thought it had been raining on the screen and it wasn’t until years later I realised it was the poor quality of the film. The black streaks moved everlastingly up and down.

The Star Picture Palace was in Poplar High Street, founded in 1914, and seated 400. It was run by the British Improved Bioscope Co. Ltd., no less.

The London Project

The London Project is a major study of the film business in London, 1894-1914, organised by the AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies. The project ran 2004-05, but written outputs are in preparation and will be seen later this year; and there the main project output, a searchable database, which is available online. This documents nearly 1,000 cinemas and other film venues, and just as many film businesses located in London before the First World War. The researchers on the project were Simon Brown and Luke McKernan, with Professor Ian Christie of Birkbeck, University of London, overseeing the work.

The database is designed to attract not only early film specialists, but a general audience interested in London history. To this end there is a map of the boroughs of London, from which users can call up database results for the part of the city they are interested in. Because the database entries can be found through Google searches, it has generated quite a public response. The current web address is, though there is talk of this changing soon. As the person responsible for the cinema records, I have to say that Simon’s film business records are better.