Film History Essentials: London’s Trafalgar Square (1890)

What it’s about:

Enclosed by a round frame, traffic moves through a shot of Trafalgar Square. A street lamp occupies the foreground, with the National Gallery dome occupying the background. In-between, a number of people pass by in vehicles and on foot, and a fountain is clearly visible in action on the righthand side of the frame.

Why it’s essential:

Wordsworth Donisthorpe, in addition to having an incredible name, was one of the first people to attempt to make a motion picture camera. He patented his idea for one in 1876, a full two years before Muybridge’s photographs of a horse in motion were publicized! He called his idea the “Kinesigraph.” His Kinesigraph would, he said:

“facilitate the taking of a succession of photographic pictures at equal intervals of time, in order to record the changes taking place in or the movement of the object being photographed, and also by means of a succession of pictures so taken of any moving object to give to the eye a presentation of the object in continuous movement as it appeared when being photographed.”

Read carefully and you’ll notice that he’s describing, not only the recording of motion pictures, but also their presentation.

Although there were a few people working on motion photography by this time, connecting it specifically with exhibition was pretty unique. But Donisthorpe didn’t stop there. In 1878, he suggested that his Kinesigraph could be combined with a brand-new invention called the Phonograph to produce talking pictures. He immediately saw that potential over a decade before Edison himself tried the same idea. He does not, however, seemed to have produced a working camera until many years later. In 1889, Donisthorpe took out another patent for a device he was also calling the Kinesigraph, but by now he had a partner: his cousin, William Carr Crofts.

Donisthorpe had big ideas, but Crofts seems to have had the technical skill to actually realize them. He, like some others who were working on this problem during this same time, saw the significance to his project of celluloid film, which had just been introduced. By the summer of 1890, Donisthorpe and Crofts had a working model that they used to film this view of Trafalgar Square, the oldest surviving motion picture of London. (A replica of their Kinesigraph appears at right.) They hadn’t beaten Le Prince, but no one knew about Le Prince’s achievements yet, and they were way ahead of almost everyone else. Unfortunately, it turned out they were a little too far ahead.

The two men had made a motion picture, but they couldn’t crack the problem of how to project it for an audience. Donisthorpe approached Sir George Newnes, a wealthy publisher with a known fascination for cutting-edge technology, to ask for funding. Newnes consulted his own “experts” as to the viability of Donisthorpe’s idea, and they judged it to be “wild, visionary, and ridiculous,” and opined that “the only result of attempting to photograph motion would be an indescribable blur.” Their assessment was surprisingly short-sighted considering that there were people who had already been successfully photographing motion for several years (perhaps they’d seen a few of Marey’s single-plate experiments).

Unfortunately, between Newnes’ refusal and Crofts’ death just a few years later, Donisthorpe’s hopes of being the one to realize his prescient vision of the future were over. His foresight, however, remained as keen as ever. In a book published (by Newnes!) in 1898 (a slightly-fictionalized account of a trip around the Mediterranean with Newnes), Donisthorpe reflected, rather bleakly:

“Shall we never be able to glide back up the stream of Time, and peep into the old home, and gaze on the old faces? Perhaps when the phonograph and the kinesigraph are perfected, and some future worker has solved the problem of colour photography, our descendants will be able to deceive themselves with something very like it: but it will be but a barren husk: a soulless phantasm and nothing more.”

-Down the Stream of Civilization, p. 32

By 1898, everyone could see that motion pictures had potential. In fact, Newnes himself invested in a motion picture syndicate that year. But they were still very much in their infancy. It would be nearly 40 years before motion, sound, and full color would be regularly combined to make feature films, but Donisthorpe (who died in 1914) foresaw the possibilities, what they would mean, and also what they wouldn’t.

Why you should see it:

I don’t know if it’s the round frame, the picturesque shot composition, or some other factor, but London’s Trafalgar Square almost puts me in mind of an animated postcard. The static elements dominate the shot, drawing our attention even as people and carriages hurry by in the bottom third of the frame. The fountain is the one exception, an immobile object that nonetheless teems with motion. The water tumbles and flows, animated and full of life, but confined to one spot, just off-center, as everyone around it enters from one side of the frame and exits out the other. It’s a contradiction that feels appropriate to the only surviving piece of film by a man who was bursting with such incredible ideas, but who was stuck watching from the sidelines as others gained immortality by turning his ideas from speculative concepts into concrete realities.

~ by Jared on January 14, 2023.

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