The 1895 Motion Simulator

They were ready to make the first Time Machine movie in 1895!


In 1926, Terry Ramsaye wrote A Million and One Nights, a definitive history of the development of the motion picture through 1925. A chapter titled Paul and the Time Machine details how British inventor Robert W. Paul ��exactly anticipated the photoplay� � the idea of a narrative script � long before the first such films was made.

Little did Ramsaye suspect that Paul also �exactly anticipated� the motion simulator ride about a century before they started turning up at the theme parks!

Though the Paul/Wells collaboration never resulted in the actual creation of the theme-park-style attraction described below, it is a thoroughly remarkable story that suggests that The Time Machine provided the basis for the first motion picture script. And what a great ride it would have been!

Ramsaye begins the fascinating story by telling how Robert W. Paul came to the movies in this abridged excerpt.

Two Greeks, Georgiades and Trajedis, arrived in London with Kinetoscopes purchased in New York and opened an exhibition in a store in Old Broad Street, E.C.

The instant success of the showing made them wish for more Kinetoscopes to extend their business. They evolved an enterprising line of action. Instead of importing more of the expensive Edison machines, at $300 each, F.O.B. New York, they would have duplicates made in England. They cast about seeking a machine maker.

They found Robert W. Paul, maker of scientific instruments of precision. Georgiades and Trajedis asked Paul to duplicate the Kinetoscope. He reflected and demurred, pointing out that it was undoubtedly patented by Edison and that it would be illegal to build it.

But when the Greeks persisted, Paul investigated the British patent records and found to his amazement that Edison had in fact not patented his machine in England. Edison had some years before waved aside his attorney's suggestion of foreign patents.

This situation left Paul with a free hand. He forthwith filled the order of the Greeks and also proceeded to make some of the machines on his own account. These machines he placed on exhibition in Earl's Court, London, to a large and immediate profit.

The fame of Paul and the Kinetoscope spread, and a large demand arose in Great Britain and extended over to the Continent. Orders for the machines came from all directions. Edison had not only overlooked foreign patents, but the whole foreign market as well. When Paul and his assistants appeared at his shop in the mornings they found the stairway lined with waiting customers, some asleep on the steps after a night long vigil there in Hatton Garden holding their places to book orders for Kinetoscopes.

All of Paul's machines were necessarily dependent on the Edison studio in New Jersey for films. The only motion pictures in the world were being made at the "Black Maria." 'This foreign demand soon brought alarmed attention from Gilmore, Edison's general manager. Gilmore, striving to rehabilitate Edison finances, were clutching at every asset. He moved quickly to attempt a recovery of the overlooked foreign market. The supply of films for Paul was abruptly cut off.  Frank Z. Maguire and Joseph D. Baucus, an attorney, went to London as Edison agents for the Kinetoscope.

But Paul, with a thriving business under way, was not to be thwarted now. He set about endeavors at a camera. He immediately recognized the necessity for an intermittent motion for the recording film, with a pause for each exposure. The first experimental idea, according to accounts, was adopted by Paul from a sketch for a machine to print still photographs from a roll of paper fed past the negative from a roll of stock, interrupted and clamped into contact for each successive print. This scheme was submitted by Birt Acres, in connection with his work for an English photographic supply manufacturer, and had no direct relation to the motion picture in its conception.

Responding to an inquiry aimed at establishing disputed facts and dates, Paul in a letter to the author July 23, 1924, said:

I find that on March 29, 1895, I made an agreement with Birt Acres for him to take films for the Kinetoscope with a camera made by me. It has an intermittent movement of the film, effected by clamping and unclamping the film at the "gate" while under tension provided by a spring jockey-roller. This gave unsteady pictures and within a few weeks (I think, days) was replaced by a sprocket, 7 pictures in circumference, actuated by a finger wheel and a 7-point star based on the idea of a Maltese cross.

In other words, Paul in his second camera arrived at a stop motion device very similar to that which the Edison-Dickson experiments had evolved in 1888 in West Orange.

The Paul camera differed markedly from the Edison Kinetograph in several important respects. The Kinetograph with its ponderous housing and battery and motor drive could only be moved with a horse-drawn wagon. The Paul machine was small and portable. Also Edison, striving for continuous effect on the eye and rather unaware of how easily the eye may be imposed upon in the matter of persistence of vision, used from forty-five to forty-eight exposures or images a second. Paul decided that twenty were ample to give the effect and just about half as costly in film consumption.

Among Paul's first Kinetoscope subjects were Bootblack at Work in a London Street and A Rough Sea at Dover. These pictures went out to his peep show customers.

Paul tried projection with the continuously running film of the Kinetoscope movement. Some time before the autumn of 1895 Paul reached the notion of using an intermittent motion in the projector, permitting the picture to pause for the eye. Commenting on this in his letter, Paul remarks:

Early in 1895 I had not realized the necessity for intermittent movement of the film, but it is certain that I did so by October of that year; this of course refers to projection, and is the stranger as I had already made several cameras with intermittent motion.

Once set in the path of the pursuit of the intermittent motion, Paul soon applied his camera experience to the projector. The tale of his final triumph is a part of British film tradition. It was in the pale hour of three o'clock in the morning in the workshop in Hatton Garden. The machine was finally assembled, threaded with film, and started. When the picture flashed up on the screen Paul and his assistants set up a cheer.

Having arrived at the motion picture on the screen, Paul was still somewhat in doubt about what to do with it. He appears to have had some dimly prophetic vision of an evolving career for the new art of the picture.

That Paul saw it in the light of a scientific abstraction which might find concrete utility in the service of art is indicated by the counsel he sought.

Paul's attention was arrested by a conspicuous piece of fiction entitled The Time Machine, which appeared in 1894. There was a striking relation between the fancy of the story and the fact of the motion picture. The author of this story was H. G. Wells, a science teacher who had turned from the class room and lecture platform to fiction for his expression. His story The Time Machine was helping mightily to establish him as a writer. Wells had only fairly begun to write of his speculations and forecasts in the evolution of the doctrines and social opinion which today make him world famous.

In this story Paul saw an opportunity to use the special properties of the motion picture in a new and perhaps especially effective method of narration. He wrote to Wells, who went to confer with Paul at his laboratory at 44 Hatton Garden.

A reading of The Time Machine, even now, leaves one with a strong impression that the story was born of the direct suggestion of the behavior of a motion picture film. Wells, in a letter to the writer in 1924, said he was unable to remember details of the relation. But the evidence is such that if the story was not evolved directly from the experience of seeing the Kinetoscope, it was indeed an amazing coincidence.

The Time Machine is a fanciful tale of the adventures of a physicist who built a machine which could travel in time just as an airplane travels in space. The Time Traveler tells his story in the first person. In the third chapter of the Wells story he says:

I drew a breath, set my teeth, gripped the starting lever with both my hands, and went off with a thud. The laboratory got hazy and went dark. Mrs. Wachett came in, and walked, apparently without seeing me, toward the garden door. I suppose it took her a minute or so to traverse the place, but to me she seemed to shoot across the room like a rocket.

In that paragraph one does not have to stretch his fancy to see what must be taken as the motion picture influence at the bottom of Wells' concept. The operation of the Time Traveler was very like the starting of the peep-show Kinetoscope, and the optical effect experienced by the fictional adventurer was identical with that experienced in viewing a speeding film.

But even more strongly is the motion picture character of The Time Machine idea evidenced in Wells' chapter thirteen, where the Time Traveler, nearing the end of his narrative, recites :

I saw one little thing that seemed odd to me. I think I have told you that when I set out, before my velocity became very high, Mrs. Wachett had walked across the room, traveling, it seemed to me, like a rocket. As I returned, I passed again across the minute when she traversed the laboratory. But now every motion appeared to be the direct inverse of her previous one. The door at the lower end opened and she glided quietly up the laboratory, back foremost, and disappeared behind the door by which she had previously entered.

This paragraph details precisely the effect of running a film backward with consequent exact reversal of the action. It is hard to believe that Wells did not take his notion directly from the peep show film. One of the earliest novelty effects sought in the Kinetoscope in the days when it was enjoying scientific attention was in exactly this sort of reversal of commonplace bits of action. It continues today a somewhat hackneyed bit of trick camera work. In the early days we saw runners backing up at high speed and backing locomotives swallowing their smoke in reverse gear. Nowadays we see Venuses in half-piece bathing suits spring from the pool and retrace the parabola of the dive to alight on the springboard. Such is the progress of art.

Returning to Wells, there is additional evidence of the motion picture root of The Time Machine idea in that he stresses the picture reversal effect in the phrase: "she glided quietly ." Wells seems to have been thinking in terms of the picture exclusively. He for the moment ignored the fact that his Time Traveler in recrossing a moment of time should have experienced the sounds as well as the sights of that moment, both reversed. Mrs. Wachett might just as well also been heard backing up and closing the door. The thing had already been done in experimental reversals of the phonograph. It would seem pretty definite that the Time Traveler was all eyes and the story all motion picture.

Out of the author-scientist collaborations in Hatton Garden came a screen project to materialize the human wish to live in the Past, Present and Future all at once. It is all set forth in clear terms in a British patent application, No. 19984, drawn up by Paul under date of October 24, 189S, reading:



My invention consists of a novel form of exhibition whereby the spectators have presented to their view scenes which are supposed to occur in the future or past, while they are given the sensation of voyaging upon a machine through time, and means for presenting these scenes simultaneously and in conjunction with the production of the sensations by the mechanism described below, or its equivalent.


The mechanism I employ consists of a platform, or platforms, each of which contain a suitable number of spectators and which may be enclosed at the sides after the spectators have taken their places, leaving a convenient opening towards which the latter face, and which is directed towards a screen upon which the views are presented.


In order to create the impression of traveling, each platform may be suspended from cranks in shafts above the platform, which may be driven by an engine or other convenient source of power. These cranks may be so placed as to impart to the platform a gentle rocking motion, and may also be employed to cause the platform to travel bodily forward through a short space, when desired, or I may substitute for this portion of the mechanism similar shafts below the platforms, provided with cranks or cams, or worms keyed eccentrically on the shaft, or wheels gearing in racks attached to the underside of the platform or otherwise.


Simultaneously with the forward propulsion of the platform, I may arrange a current of air to be blown over it, either by fans attached to the sides of the platform, and intended to represent to the spectators the means of propulsion, or by a separate blower driven from the engine and arranged to throw a regulated blast over each of the platforms.


After the starting of the mechanism, and a suitable period having elapsed, representing, say, a certain number of centuries, during which the platforms may be in darkness, or in alternations of darkness and dim light, the mechanism may be slowed and a pause made at a given epoch, on which the scene upon the screen will come gradually into view of the spectators, increasing in size and distinctness from & small vista, until the figures, etc., may appear lifelike if desired.


In order to produce a realistic effect, I prefer to use for the projection of the scene upon the screen, a number of powerful lanterns, throwing the respective portions of the picture, which may be composed of,


( 1) A hypothetical landscape, containing also the representations of the inanimate objects in the scene.


(2) A slide, or slides, which may be traversed horizontally or vertically and contain representations of objects such as a navigable balloon etc., which is required to traverse the scene.


(3) Slides or films, representing in successive instantaneous photographs, after the manner of the Kinetoscope, the living persons or creatures in their natural motions. The films or slides are prepared with the aid of the Kinetograph or special camera, from made up characters performing on a stage, with or without a suitable background blending with the main landscape.


The mechanism may be similar to that used in the Kinetoscope, but I prefer to arrange the film to travel intermittently instead of continuously and to cut off the light only during the rapid displacement of the film as one picture succeeds another, as by this means less light is wasted than in the case when the light is cut off for the greater portion of the time, as in the ordinary Kinetoscope mechanism.


(4) Changeable coloured, darkened, or perforated slides may be used to produce the effect on the scene of sunlight, darkness, moonlight; rain, etc.


In order to enable the scenes to be gradually enlarged to a definite amount, I may mount these lanterns on suitable carriages or trollies, upon rails provided with stops or marks, so as to approach to or recede from the screen a definite distance, and to enable a dissolving effect to be obtained, the lantern may be fitted with the usual mechanism. In order to increase the realistic effect I may arrange that after a certain number of scenes from a hypothetical future have been presented to the spectators, they may be allowed to step from the platforms, and be conducted through grounds or buildings arranged to represent exactly one of the epochs through which the spectator is supposed to be traveling.


After the last scene is presented, I prefer to arrange that the spectators should be given the sensation of voyaging backwards from the last epoch to the present, or the present epoch may be supposed to have been accidentally passed, and a past scene represented on the machine coming to a standstill, after which the impression of traveling forward again to the present epoch may be given, and the re-arrival notified by the representation on the screen of the place at which the exhibition is held, or of some well-known building which by the movement forward of the lantern can be made to increase gradually in size as if approaching the spectator.



Paul, inspired by Wells' story, in this document exactly anticipated the photoplay, which was not to be born yet for many a year.

It was, viewed from the easy facility of the slowly evolved screen technique of to-day, a clumsy collection of mechanical expedients. He did not and could not know then that everything sought by way of revolving stages, combined stereopticons, projection machines, scenic settings, masked seating sections and platform rocking devices to simulate travel motion, would one day be done entirely on the screen. The photoplay of today moves backward and forward through Time with facile miracle from the Present into the Past and Future by the cut-back, flash-back and vision scenes. The Paul patent notion of sliding projection machines to enlarge or diminish the size of the picture is executed by the camera of to-day while the projector stands still in its theatre booth. Most amazingly, too, Paul and Wells in 1895 plainly had the idea of not only the cut. back and close-up but also the fade-in and fade-out, the overlap-dissolving of scenes into each other and all of the supplemental tonal effects of sunshine, fog, rain, moonlight and the like, now common to the screen drama.

Many years of reading Wells' works have rather accustomed us to thinking of him as the forecaster of most of the scientific wonders which have become commonplaces of civilization, as for instance the airplane. But even that is no preparation for the surprising discovery in this long forgotten patent application that Wells and Paul forecast something infinitely more complex than any machine--no less than a whole art form.

The Wells-Paul feat of 1895 surpasses even that remarkable anticipation by which Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac completely described the phonograph, two centuries before its invention, in his Histoire Comique des Etats et Empires de la Lune published in 1656, the year after his death in Paris.

The anticipations of the phonograph by de Bergerac in the middle of the seventeenth century and of the screen drama in the end of the nineteenth are given still more interest when we realize that these two desires of sight and sound were fused in the one mind of Edison, and that through his single agency they were both materialized. The line between Art and Science is narrow indeed.

But the Wells/Paul idea, embodied in the patent application, contained gropings for a greater and new liberty for art. It sought to liberate the spectator from the instant of Now. The Now to which our consciousness is chained is but a mathematical point of no dimensions traveling ever forward, describing the line which extends behind us as the Past and ahead of us as the Future.

The same impulse of cosmic adventure which has colored Wells' writing feats of fancy in tales of other worlds and of hypothetical ages was at work here. He wanted free range to lead his audiences at will back and forth along the infinite hyper-dimensional line of Time. It was a plan to give the spectator possession, on equal terms, of Was and To Be along with Is. The motion picture was to cut away the hampering fog of the complex sequence of tenses of thought just as it was to cut back to reality through the misty attenuations of language.

This motion picture Time-machine idea was artistically at one with Ouspensky's mathematically mysterious philosophy and Einstein's philosophically mysterious mathematics. It was a promise of a more concrete application of their remote intellectual abstractions. The author and the philosopher alike often in their flights come beating against the walls of Space and Time. They are just expressions of the human wish to be liberated from the cage of the eternal Now.

Way back in the early '70's Nicolas Camille Flammarion, student of stars and dreamer of dreams, in France, wrote a scientific fantasy tale embodying related concepts, concerning the adventures of an interstellar race, masters of Time and Space. Flammarion's story was widely translated and circulated. In the United States, by coincidence, two editions were published in the '90's just before the birth of the motion picture. The peculiar possibilities of the motion picture's ability to petrify and preserve moments of fleeting time were here and there recognized even in the earliest days of the peep show. Witness the following fragment of an editorial from the St. Louis Post Dispatch:



The Kinetoscope, we are told, has recently been made to run backwards, and the effects of this way of running it are truly marvelous. In his remarkable romance, Lumen, the imaginative French astronomer, Flammarion, conceives of spiritual beings who, by traveling forward on a ray of light, see, with the keen vision of the spirit, all that ray of light carried from the beginning of creation. By reversing the process and traveling in the contrary direction, they witness the events of history reversed, so that men appear to be rising from the grave, growing young and finally disappearing in the process of birth.


It now seems that the Kinetoscope is to make this wondrous vision possible to us. Already, by allowing it to turn backwards, the actions can be seen in reverse order. The effect is said to be almost miraculous. In the process of eating food is taken from the mouth and placed on the plate.

It has taken the motion picture more than a quarter of a century to grow from the Edison Kinetoscope into the photoplay's modem approximation of The Time Machine and the Paul/Wells concept of 1895!

Wells was the first writer, in other words the first professional re-creator of events, to come into contact with the motion picture. This circumstance led nearly to the attainment, at a single stroke, of the photoplay construction which has since come only by tedious evolution.

No writer or dramatist has since made so bold a gesture with reference to the screen as resulted from this tentative joining of Paul's invention and Wells' fancy. They were hampered by no precedent or built-up tradition of the screen industry, such as has affected the thought of every writer or dramatist of subsequent connection with the art. When, more than a decade later, the screen reached for the aid of the writing craft, it had established an audience and precedents of practice which did I not permit the scenario writer to be a free agent of expression. The project of '95 conceived the motion picture as a tool and servant in the business of story telling, while the writers who came in after the lapse of years were to be the tools and servants of the then entrenched motion picture business.

The actual processes of the evolution which was to realize some measure of this early vision did not well begin until some thirteen years later, in 1908, when D. W. Griffith began to assemble the mechanical and optical properties of the motion picture into a new dramatic technique peculiar to the screen.

The extraordinary machinery of the Past, Present and Future embodied in the Paul patent application was never built because there was no money available to carry out the daring idea. Paul dropped the project and did not proceed with the formalities necessary to the issuance of the patent. He was utterly forgotten until the researches of this history caused Paul to bring it to light to establish an incidental date. In the third specification of the proposed methods of the patent Paul defined the intermittent principle of the motion picture projection device included. The patent application therefore establishes the fact that it was some time prior to October 25, 1895, that he arrived at the idea of an intermittent motion in screen projection. Now by the date of the Acres agreement we have seen that in March of that year Paul's camera building, which preceded projection efforts, had just begun. The essential invention of the intermittent motion therefore fell between those dates, closely paralleling Armat's identical efforts in Washington.

When the Wells-Paul Past-Present-Future machine came to naught the whole Paul screen notion became dormant for a period awaiting the vitalizing influence to developments to come. Some months later Paul, who was still inclined to view his machine as a scientific instrument, decided to show it to a scientific audience. On February 20, 1896, Paul's projector was demonstrated before an audience at Finsbury Technical College, and on February 28 it was shown in the library of the Royal Institution. These showings were accepted with due and grave appreciation. After two whole generations a British scientist had demonstrated an application of certain elements of that paper on Persistence of Vision with Regard to Moving Objects read by Dr. Peter Mark Roget before the Royal Society. That was that, and the Royal Society proceeded with the regular order of business.

To the student of contemporary literature this near motion picture adventure of Wells is of interest in that it appears to have been a part of his experience when he was laying down the foundations of his writing career, which became an outgrowth of his work and considerations as a teacher of science. He broke from the class room for the greater liberty of the printed page. If he had given attention to the motion picture and its larger opportunity of mastery over Time by translations into the Present he might have set the screen's progress forward many a year.

The motion picture is a triumph over tenses. It is a time machine in which we all ride with Lumen.

Don Brockway, December 26, 2001 (updated October 12, 2004)

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