Anyone who has been through certain London Underground stations in the past year or so will have been struck by the video advertising sites that have replaced hoardings and posters alongside the escalators. How very modern, you think. Well, actually the idea celebrates its centenary this year.
On 29 September 1909, one Robert Fox, engineer, of 15 Werter Road, Putney applied for a patent on a ‘means of producing cinematograph effects, more especially for advertising purposes, by means of the motion of a railway carriage or like rapidly moving vehicle. The invention is especially intended for use in “tube” railways and employs walls of the tube as the means of display.’ This is his description of the technique:
On the walls of the tunnel, or mounted on suitable supports by the side of the line if in the open, I place, as in apparatus already proposed for this purpose, a long succession of photographic enlargements or pictures taken from a cinematograph film or otherwise produced in such a manner that. if viewed in rapid succession they give the effect of a moving picture, such pictures being separated by wide blank spaces, preferably black or darkened, as viewed by the observer, and placed on a level with the windows so that they are readily seen by passengers. They are illuminated by light thrown upon or through them from the carriage or from fixed lamps. The separating or stopping off portions are, according to my invention, wedge shaped or triangular in. plan with the front face at right angles to the picture and a blank sloping face in the direction meeting the train. The front face may be provided with the lamps.
These pictures are placed along the line in parts where the train maintains a fairly constant speed and the width of the pictures is calculated upon the speed the train is expected to reach. The eyes of the passengers are caused by the brilliantly illuminated pictures to rest momentarily on each picture as it arrives and pass rapidly over the blank space to the next slightly differing one, so that the effect produced corresponds to that of an ordinary cinematograph, although the person viewing moves while the pictures retain their position, in contrast to the ordinary arrangement.
Mr Fox, who by then, perhaps bored by travelling through dark tube tunnels, had moved to Westcliff-on-Sea, was rewarded with a patent on 11 August 1910. Not quite flat-screen video panels but a bold effort that had to wait almost a century to be realised.
In 1996, to mark the centenary of the cinema the British Film Institute backed a scheme called Cinema 100 to place 300 commemorative plaques on a number of locations associated with the beginnings of the cinema in Britain. Revisiting the ones along the Sussex coast recently revealed what a sad state some are in.
The worst case is probably the plaque which marks the location of the first UK film show outside London, at what was then the Pandora Gallery, on 25 March 1896. It was also, after the name changed to Victoria Hall, where R W Paul ran a season of film shows starting on 6 July 1896. However, the plaque is virtually illegible.
But at least it is still there and it may catch the eye of visitors who sit outside the restaurant in the sun (or wind) as they gaze across the road at the West Pier, which is in an even sorrier state. Another of the Cinema 100 plaques, to mark the site of the Maguire & Baucus Kinetoscope parlour at 70 Oxford Street, London
—but actually placed on no 76
—has disappeared altogether. As also has a plaque that was placed by the Cinema Theatre Association to commemorate the Regent Cinema in Brighton. It was unveiled by Susannah York as recently as 24 May 2001 at what is now Boots store opposite the Clock Tower. So far enquiries have failed to ascertain what happened.
Another of the surviving Cinema 100 plaques is on the building that was 144 Church Street, Hove (since re-numbered as 156). Is it appropriate that today the shop where James Williamson had his pharmacy and photographic processing business is now called The Eyecare Centre?
The plaque, however, somewhat misleadingly, calls it the ‘Site of the First Studio and Laboratory created by James Williamson’ and gives the dates 1896-1898. As far as film goes, the dates are the right ones. Williamson actually moved into the shop in 1886 but did not start processing films until 1896 and he did move on (to 55 Western Road, Hove) in September 1898. However, this is the actual building, not merely its site, and it is stretching a point to refer to a ‘laboratory’
—he processed film along with the rest of his photographic processing
—and even more to call it a ‘studio’. Most of his films at this time were actualities and even the comic and dramatic films were shot out of doors.
This misleadingness is as nothing compared with another plaque, to which bombshell we shall return anon.
I’ve just been reading the 1907 patent for the device that became known as the Spirograph. It was a disc, packaged rather like a 78rpm audio record, that carried a spiral of microscopic images. It was invented by a British media journalist, a precursor of mine. Theodore Brown edited the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly; I edit Screen Digest. I’ve never invented anything as far as I can recall.
Mr Brown was quite a prolific inventor, mainly of mechanical toys, puzzles, games, kaleidoscopes and advertising devices that used changing images or patterns to attract attention. Some of his patents were held jointly with his wife, Bessie Kate Brown. Indeed, for the ‘spirograph’ her name precedes his and she gives her occupation as ‘lady’. However, unlike some pictures promoting home cinema at that time, she was not shown turning the handle to show just how easy it was to use.
The images were reduced through a microscope lens system from 35mm film to form a series of tiny images in a spiral around the disc. That makes it a proto-video disc. The advantage of a disc, of course, it that it can be copied easily
—without having to spool through film or tape.
I first saw this device, or something like it, in 1980 in the Smithsonian in Washington DC but never managed to trace much information about it. Now, courtesy of the excellent European Patent Office site, I can read exactly what Brown had in mind. Which turns out to be even more like a video disc than I realised. As well as (or more accurately, instead of) forming a spiral on the disc, the images can be in the form of concentric rings, with the mechanism moving over by one ring at the end of each revolution. However, as Brown points out, if the disc does not advance, the images can go on repeating themselves. In principle this is exactly the same as the concept used in the Philips VLP/MCA Discovision of the mid 1970s. Discs could be mastered with either constant linear velocity, in which the laser follows the spiral track at a constant rate (the rate of rotation reducing as the laser moves towards the outer edge of the disc), or constant angular velocity, in which the disc rotates at a constant speed and each revolution carries one frame of picture. So if the disc is held on a given revolution, the image on the screen is frozen.
What goes around, comes around.
- More than coincidence?
- Booked up: Cinema-by-Sea
- Made in Brighton Film Festival 2
- Made in Brighton Film Festival
- Ally Pally with Freeview
- On demand
- Nothing new 3: Victorian Disneyland
- Greasy polls
- Films about cinemas
- Nothing new 2: Moving ads in railway tunnels (1909)
- Missing and faded memorials