THE BRITISH LIBRARY

In through the outfield blog

14 November 2012

Britain invented colour movies

Britain’s National Media Museum announced a couple of months ago that it has found footage of the world’s first colour film / movie in its collection, which is now on display at the museum.

It used a process invented by Edward Turner. The use of red, green and blue filters in filming produced frames which were then superimposed on each other. The process was known, but any footage was thought to be lost, and it was assumed that it was a failure. Dating from about 1901 or 1902, the footage was in a collection formed by Charles Urban, an American businessman who had settled in London and who had taken over financing Turner’s work when the original backer, Frederick Lee, pulled out.

The collection was donated to the Science Museum in 1937 and was transferred to the National Media Museum a few years ago. The museum’s head of collections, Paul Goodman, is quoted as saying "We believe this will literally rewrite film history. I don't think it is an overstatement. These are the world's first colour moving images."

It had previously been thought that Kinemacolor in about 1909 was the first workable colour film process. This was by another Englishman, George Albert Smith of Brighton, who was also backed by Urban. The patent was numbered GB26671/1906. Smith described himself in it as an “animated picture maker”.

An article in The Guardian tells more about the exciting find. The Turner patent is GB6202/1899, Means for taking and exhibiting cinematographic pictures, and is in the names of both Turner and Lee, since the patent system at the time credited the applicants rather than the inventors (hence a financial backer named in the patent might appear to be an inventor). Below are its main drawings.

Turner and Lee colour film patent drawings

The patent gives Turner’s Hounslow, Middlesex address and describes him as a “gentleman”. The two men also secured an American patent for the invention, US645477. Tragically, Turner died in 1903, when he was only 29 years old. There’s also a short video below giving more information and some footage.

 

These are just two examples of the many patents in the early history of cinematography.

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