American-born Briton Birt Acres began working on his design for a film camera just a few years after George Eastman started playing around with ‘roll film’, the film used to record motion pictures. But while Eastman’s work led to the setting up of Kodak in 1888, Acres’ equally pioneering efforts ended in frustration and a failed friendship.
Born to British parents in Richmond, Virginia in 1854, (both of whom died in the American Civil War), Acres was sent to France by his aunt to study art and science. After a stint in the Wild West, Acres arrived in England in 1880, still only in his mid-20s.
Over the course of the following 12 years, Acres acquired a reputation as a talented photographer and inventor, and in 1892, he was hired by the leading maker of photographic plates, Elliott and Son.
Towards the end of 1894, Acres was introduced to the electrical engineer Robert W Paul, who was making copies of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope – a sort of early projector. All that was missing was the film camera to produce the films. Acres drew up a design for the ‘Kineopticon’ and Paul built it in his Hatton Gardens workshop, charging Acres £30, or around £3,500 in today’s money.
Clearly thrilled with his new camera, Acres shot the first successful film in Britain the following March, called Incident at Clovelly Cottage. Acres and Paul shook hands on a ten-year business plan, and a frantic few weeks followed with the filming of the 1895 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race and the Epsom Derby. Acres even travelled to Germany to film the Kaiser opening the Kiel Canal.
But alas, the business arrangement turned sour. On 27 May 1895, Acres patented the camera in his name alone, prompting a furious response from Paul. After just six weeks, their friendship was in tatters along with any hope of what could have been a great British business in early film-making.