The idea was that the spectators would stand on a platform that rocked gently to simulate movement as hidden fans blew the air to simulate forward motion. All around them lighting effects, slides and moving pictures would present ‘the sensation of voyaging on a machine through time’. The English showman Robert W Paul, best known now as one of the first film pioneers, described this project in the patent application (no 19984) he made on 24 October 1895 entitled ‘A novel form of exhibition or entertainment, means for presenting the same’. Paul had met H G Wells, whose story The Time Machine had achieved recent resounding success.
Some commentators have seen in this a parallel with Hale’s Tours, the short-lived sensation of a decade later in which audiences sat in railway carriages for journeys through the Rocky Mountains, past the pyramids, up Norwegian fjords. I wrote this poem several years ago:
A Kansas fire chief, George C Hale,
Created tourist trips by rail.
His big idea (no, please don’t laugh):
To use the cinematograph.
The train stood still, the world rolled by.
The carriage rocked, deceived the eye.
His cameras strapped in front of trains
Shot scenic mountains, rivers, plains.
His shows toured cities far and wide
As audiences sat there goggle-eyed.
He made a fortune. His success,
Though quite short-lived, brought happiness.
Let’s travel back to see Hale’s Tours.
I take you through the carriage doors,
I seat you on a red plush chair—
You see it, but it isn’t there.
You look through windows left and right,
You see the world in black and white.
With wanderlust to stir your blood,
See townscapes, mountains and the flood,
Norwegian fjords, the Holy Land,
The golden road to Samarkand.
No need to move—my words, you’ll find,
Create the journey in your mind.
No tickets, waiting or delay,
No checked-in bags to go astray,
No wings or wheels or horses’ hooves.
He travels far who never moves.
In fact, R W Paul’s conception went further than that. He envisaged the protoype fairground ride that began to appear 60 years later at Disneyland and subsequent theme parks, what today would be classed as virtual reality. One of the most popular genres of early film was the ‘phantom ride’, shot with a camera strapped on the front of a moving vehicle, usually a train. Early film-makers can be divided between those who saw the medium as a way of recording actuality and those who recognised it as an illusion that could be exploited. Paul belongs to the latter group, although in his relatively brief career—in common with a number of his contemporaries he had given up the cinema by 1910—he made films of both types. Another was George Albert Smith, who tranformed the phantom ride by interpolating a scene of a couple in a ‘darkened’ carriage as it travels through the tunnel in his 1898 film A Kiss in the Tunnel.
One more thought: if ‘phantom ride’ films were shot with a camera strapped to the front of a train, where was the cameraman who had to crank the handle to shoot the film?
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.
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