Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema

Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema

Ian Christie

Print publication date: 2020

ISBN: 9780226105628

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

Responsibility for the invention of moving pictures has traditionally been contested, largely between American and French pioneers, with some recognition of early achievements in England. But the London-based electrical engineer Robert Paul has never received the recognition he deserves, despite figuring in many histories for his imaginative response to H. G. Wells’ Time Machine story of 1895. Although no such machine was attempted, Paul, like the Lumières in France, built upon Edison’s Kinetoscope breakthrough to become Britain’s most successful manufacturer and producer in 1896, the year that film swept the world. After early success with actuality films, he and his wife Ellen opened a studio in North London in 1898 where they produced the first multi-scene dramas, widely shown and imitated. The Anglo-Boer war in South Africa prompted new kinds of film, both documentary and allegorical, while Paul’s studio kept pace with the trick films produced by one of his early customers, Georges Méliès. Paul’s original instrument-making business continued to flourish, and after abandoning film in 1909 in the face of market pressures, he contributed to defence work during World War I, and in his final years played an active part in both science and film history. Despite his many achievements, Paul has remained a shadowy, underestimated figure, now brought to life in this closely researched study that makes the case for him being considered one of cinema’s major pioneers.