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Robert Paul - 'the Father of the British film industry'

Originally published in the School Diary in 2007

by David Rose, CLS Librarian

Last week we received an archival enquiry concerning Old Citizen Robert William Paul (CLS 1883-85) who has been called ‘the Father of the British Film Industry’. A lengthy biography of Paul by John Barnes, author of The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, 1894-1901,can be found on the web site Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema.

Robert Paul was born in Highbury and on leaving CLS continued his studies at Finsbury Technical College. Paul was always primarily interested in electrical engineering and became one of the principal agents of the spectacular developments in this science at the turn of the Century. He has been compared to his contemporary the great American scientist Thomas Edison. In fact it was one of Edison’s inventions, the Kinetoscope, which led to Paul’s introduction to the science of cinematography.

The Kinetoscope was a peephole device for viewing 35 mm films which preceded the invention of the projector and screen. Since Edison had failed to take out a patent for his invention in Britain, Paul, who by now had his own successful instrument making business, was contracted to build imitation machines for the UK market. Since however the Edison Company had the monopoly of compatible films, Paul began working on the development of his own cinematographic camera.

The resulting device was successfully used to produce some of the earliest films in Britain, including the first motion picture recording of the University Boat Race. By 1896 Paul had invented the first 35 mm film projector, known as the Theatrograph, for commercial production in the UK. According to Barnes, Robert Paul’s Theatrograph became the prototype of modern projectors. In the same year Paul created a landmark in news reporting by showing a film of the Derby horse race to audiences, including the Prince of Wales, in theatres within twenty four hours of its finish. He built the first British film studio and began making short dramatic films.

In addition to these major contributions to cinematography, Robert Paul achieved outstanding successes in the production of galvanometers, electrostatic voltmeters, inductometers and other high precision instruments in the field of electrical engineering. This included a device known as the Pulsator which aided breathing in cases of respiratory paralysis and saved many lives.

This truly remarkable Old Citizen died in 1943, having set up a trust fund at the Institution of Electrical Engineers “for the provision of instruments of a novel or unusual character to assist physical research”.