Time future contained in time past

According to BBC News (12 September 2012) the world’s first colour moving pictures dating from 1902 have been found in Bradford after lying forgotten in an old tin for 110 years. That’s 417 years less than Richard III (1452-85), also recently discovered lying forgotten in Leicester.

On 22 March 1899 two gentlemen named Edward Turner and Frederick Marshall Lee patented a three-colour motion picture system. Although preceded by patents for colour cinematography in Germany (1897) and in Britain (1898), the Lee and Turner system was the first to lead to a working model. Using a rotating wheel with red, green and blue sectors positioned on a camera, and a three-lens projector with similar rotating filter wheel, it was inspired by the work of American Frederic Ives, whose Kromskop camera and viewer produced a still photographic colour image from three separate records in red, green and blue. Turner, a photographer and chemist of several years’ experience, worked on the Kromskop in 1898 at Ives’s London firm while at the same time developing his own colour motion picture system with financing from Frederick Marshall Lee.

In practice, however, the Lee and Turner system was a failure. It required a projection speed of 48 frames per second, combined with precise registration of three separate images from lenses positioned in parallel. The result was a blur. Turner died of a heart attack at his workshop on 9 March 1903 and the idea moved on to George Albert Smith (1864-1959), stage hypnotist, psychic, magic lantern lecturer, astronomer, inventor, and one of the pioneers of British cinema. Smith persisted with the three-colour notion before dropping the colour blue, having discovered that a credible record could be generated from red and green alone. Patented in 1906, his system became Kinemacolor, the world’s first successful motion picture system in natural colours.

Hand-coloured films began in 1895 with Thomas Edison’s Annabelle’s Dance made for his Kinetoscope viewers. Many early film-makers also used this method to some degree. George Méliès offered hand-painted prints of his own films at an additional cost over the black-and-white versions, including the visual-effects pioneering A Trip to the Moon (1902). Various parts of the film were painted frame-by-frame by 21 women working on a production-line in Montreuil (Paris).

Edward Turner’s pioneering colour film of 1902 has been restored by the National Media Museum and is being shown to audiences for the first time. Richard III is unlikely to be accorded the same public spectacle, having already been put on display after his ignominious and extremely violent death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. He was entombed in a long-lost medieval church – both church and grave recently rediscovered – known as Greyfriars in the city of Leicester, England.

On 5 September 2012 researchers announced that they had found the Greyfriars church and two days later that they had identified the location of a garden where a memorial to Richard III was known to have stood in the early 17th century. On 12 September 2012 it was announced that a skeleton discovered during the search could be Richard III. Further laboratory tests, including DNA comparisons, are planned to confirm the identification. All of which goes to show that, in his much quoted lines from “Burnt Norton” in Four Quartets (1944), T. S. Eliot was right:

“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.”


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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

One thought on “Time future contained in time past”

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