Film History Essentials: Rough Sea at Dover (1895)

What it’s about:

Waves crash and break violently against a sea wall that juts out into the water. Also included in this clip is a second shot, most definitely not of the ocean at Dover. It isn’t known whether this shot was always part of the original film, but it is certainly footage from a different location, possibly the river above Niagara Falls.

Why it’s essential:

By the mid-1890s, the British had a history of nearly inventing the movies. Louis Le Prince successfully made some motion picture films in 1888, but, if he developed a way to project them (as some claimed), no one outside of his immediate circle ever saw it before his mysterious disappearance in 1890. That same year, Wordsworth Donisthorpe and William Carr Crofts filmed at least one motion picture with their “kinesigraph,” but were unable to secure the funding they needed to develop a method of projection.

Meanwhile, throughout 1888-1890 and beyond, the British photographer and inventor William Friese-Greene (see right) was involved in several motion picture camera projects, often with collaborators (he even corresponded with Edison while Dickson was working on the kinetoscope). He produced some films, although all of them are lost and little is known about the device that produced the films we know about. There are also various claims that he demonstrated a motion picture projector, but no records exist that confirm this. By the end of 1895, the Americans, the Germans, and the French had all successfully projected motion pictures for a paying audience, but the British had not. That was about to change.

Before we get to that, it is necessary to back up to 1894 and discuss a little entrepreneurial piracy. In July of 1894, a group of Americans who had originally emigrated from Greece formed the American Kinetoscope Company and gave the first demonstration of an Edison kinetoscope in Paris (which was also the first demonstration in Europe). This demonstration (which continued into the following year) likely provided the inspiration that led the Lumière brothers to develop the cinematograph, but by then the company had also opened a kinetoscope show in London and was looking to expand.

A major problem with this plan was that the American Kinetoscope Company had no official license from Edison to operate in London. Edison had sold the exhibition rights for the entire world excluding the US and Canada to a pair of Americans named Maguire and Baucus, so the company wouldn’t be getting any more official machines. (In fact, they were fending off a legal challenge from the aforementioned pair.) Fortunately, Edison had neglected to patent the kinetoscope in the United Kingdom, so they simply went looking for someone that could duplicate the devices for them. A man named Henry Short introduced them to his friend Robert Paul (see left), a brilliant electrical engineer who soon had not only made several machines for the company, but was also making additional machines for himself.

Of course, the thing about having only knockoff Edison kinetoscopes was that Edison wouldn’t sell them any of his films to play on them. Paul would need to go into film production for himself, which also meant he would need a camera. Enter Henry Short again, with an introduction to Birt Acres (see right), his manager at the photographic materials company where they both worked. Acres possessed the considerable knowledge of cameras and photography that Paul urgently needed to get started. The two met on February 4, 1895, and formed a partnership that at first appeared quite successful. They had a working camera by the following month, and Acres quit his job to travel around making films full time while Paul began working on promotion and distribution.

However, when Acres returned in the middle of the summer, their partnership ended abruptly and rancorously, seemingly over a question of Paul having taken all of the credit for the fruits of their combined labors. Thereafter the two men gave very different accounts of who had actually developed the camera Acres used to produce their films. Regardless, Acres was the one to patent it, and to copyright the films it recorded. For his part, Paul simply developed and built a new camera, though not until April of the following year. By then, he had already developed a projector, which he called the “Theatrograph” (see left), first demonstrated on February 20, and then shown publicly on March 19.

But Acres had gotten there first. He developed his projector by the end of 1895, and gave the first public demonstration of a projected film in the UK less than 2 weeks after the Lumière brothers Paris debut, on January 10, 1896 (though a commercial screening didn’t occur until March 21). The program included Rough Sea at Dover, and it was particularly popular. Meanwhile, the Skladanowsky brothers had their January booking in London cancelled, just as their Paris booking had been. England now had its own, homegrown projection systems.

As for Rough Sea at Dover, it played a significant role in an important event that occurred just a few months later. But the story of that event begins in March 1895, with a partnership formed by inventors Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins to develop film projection. Within 6 months they had a working projector, the “Phantoscope” (see right), that was compatible with kinetoscope films, and they had used it to exhibit at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta. Opinions differ as to whether this counts as a “commercial” exhibition or not, but attendees were asked to pay as they left the screening room.

This exhibition didn’t go particularly well, especially after a fire broke out at a booth next-door and damaged their set-up. The two quarreled, and Jenkins took one of the projectors and left for home, where he filed a patent claiming sole credit. He seems to have felt that he didn’t need Armat, and even (rightly or wrongly) that the majority of their accomplishments were due to his work. Fortunately for Armat, a joint patent already existed, and Jenkins was denied.

Still, he continued to claim sole credit, and the pair were tied up in court over the issue for some time. Jenkins eventually went so far as to say he had actually projected a film in his hometown of Richmond, Indiana way back in June 1894. He spun a whole story about tapping into a passing trolley wire for electrical power and showing the film Annabelle Butterfly Dance, which he apparently claimed to have filmed himself, in his own backyard! (That detail, at least, was in accounts published decades later by Indiana newspapers.)

Ultimately, when he couldn’t secure sole patent rights, Jenkins sold his stake to Armat. Armat ended up selling the Phantoscope rights to the Kinetoscope Company. They secured Edison’s blessing of the purchase, and his agreement to manufacture the machines and make films for them, under the condition that it be renamed the “Vitascope” and marketed as an Edison invention. Edison’s own engineers had not yet been able to produce a working projector, and there was growing concern that they would be left behind in the rapidly emerging field of film projection. “EDISON’S GREATEST MARVEL” debuted before the public on April 23, 1896, and one of the films shown was Acres’ Rough Sea at Dover, which once again proved very popular with audiences.

Edison’s people were able to complete their own projector in November, and the Vitascope had successfully filled the gap. Of course, the Eidoloscope had projected films for an audience over a year earlier, but Edison was a publicity juggernaut and had name-recognition that the Lathams couldn’t match. Besides, the entire country was proud of Edison and his accomplishments (and his “accomplishments”), and this was the narrative people wanted. The Vitascope helped cement Edison’s carefully-manufactured reputation as the inventor of motion pictures. As for Paul and Acres . . .

Robert Paul launched completely into filmmaking as a business, and went on to open his country’s first film studio. By the turn of the century, he was the most successful film producer and distributor in the UK. He is remembered as “the father of the British film industry.” Birt Acres, on the other hand, was more high-minded and believed that films had a more serious purpose than mere entertainment. He spent the next few years giving lectures that promoted the possibilities filmmaking offered for science, photography, and education. This turned out to be a poor business plan, and although Acres continued to be responsible for a number of innovations, he was unable to capitalize on them, and his contributions were nearly forgotten for decades. It probably didn’t help that his former partner’s successes gave additional weight to Paul’s biased account of their brief collaboration.

Why you should see it:

Despite its brevity, it really isn’t difficult to see why audiences responded so strongly to Rough Sea at Dover. It’s such a captivating juxtaposition of human ingenuity and resilience in the face of nature’s raw power and beauty. Then, too, Dover as a place has such a strong national association, both for the British people and for Anglophilic Americans. The image of the waves crashing is mesmerizing, and most have been particularly affecting to audiences who were quite distant from the ocean at a time when traveling to the beach was the only way to actually see crashing ocean waves. For some viewers, this was probably their first time to see the sea in motion.

Rough Sea at Dover was, obviously, one of the first films to go out to a distant location to film, rather than film in a studio or a nearby city street. Marey also famously captured images of an ocean wave, but those wouldn’t have been seen by many people outside of the scientific community. Acres, and (to various extents) all the many other people involved in realizing the dream of film projection throughout 1895-96, brought that experience to the masses.


~ by Jared on February 14, 2023.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: