Wordsworth Donisthorpe/William Carr Crofts


British inventor and political activist

Donisthorpe was born in Leeds, England, in 1847. His father George Edmund was an inventor; his mother was a great-niece of the poet William Wordsworth. He attended Leeds school, and in 1865 was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a Maths Wrangler. In 1882 he founded, with his cousin William Carr Crofts (1846-1894) and others, the Liberty and Property Defence League, to promote their Individualist or libertarian ideas. In 1885 he helped found the British Chess Association, and the British Chess Club. Donisthorpe became a barrister but did not practice, becoming instead a political activist.

On 9 November 1876 Donisthorpe applied for a patent for an apparatus ‘to facilitate the taking of a succession of photographs at equal intervals of time, in order to record the changes taking place in or the movements of the object being photographed, and also by means of a succession of pictures so taken … to give to the eye a representation of the object in continuous movement …’ He may have became interested in the idea of motion pictures while still at university, as his examiner in 1869 was physicist James Clerk Maxwell, whose own improved Zoetrope was revealed that same year. Donisthorpe’s Kinesigraph camera was evidently inspired by the ‘square motion’ wool-combing machine designed by his father, with the ‘falling combs’ replaced with falling photographic plates. The camera was built, but how well it worked is not recorded. On 24 January 1878, a letter from Donisthorpe, ‘Talking Photographs’, appeared in Nature, in which he suggested that his Kinesigraph, used in conjunction with Edison’s recent invention the Phonograph, could produce a talking picture of Prime Minister William Gladstone. Each individual photograph was to be illuminated by an electric spark and projected in sequence onto a magic lantern screen. The materials available for photography at that time did not lend themselves to motion picture work, and nothing else is heard from Donisthorpe on this subject until 1889, when he patented a film camera and projector. Louis Le Prince, was living in Donisthorpe’s home town of Leeds, and it may be that word of Le Prince’s 1888 experiments revived Donisthorpe’s interest in the problem.

The patent for Donisthorpe’s new camera (B.P. 12,921), also called the Kinesigraph, was taken out jointly with William Crofts. As keen Darwinists (Crofts’ sister Ellen was married to Charles Darwin’s son Francis) it may be that the two inventors saw the machinery of the industrial revolution, specifically the wool-combing machines jointly devised by their fathers, as a legacy that could evolve into a mechanism of the communications revolution – the motion picture camera – ensuring their financial security, and perhaps even useful in promoting their extreme libertarian views. It was a unique camera mechanism, which again had more in common with textile machinery than with other photographic devices. A shuttle carrying the film moved upwards as the film itself was pulled down, resulting in the film being stationary relative to the lens during each exposure. Development was entrusted to Crofts, and it was perhaps at a Camera Club lecture that he became aware of Eastman celluloid roll film. The new medium was ideal for their camera. Some time between late 1889 and early 1891, Donisthorpe and Crofts set up their Kinesigraph in a building overlooking London’s Trafalgar Square, and shot at least one short film. It is an evocative, multi-layered view. Foaming water from one of the famous fountains is framed against a sooty background of the domed National Gallery building, with the bustling traffic of pedestrians and horse-drawn omnibuses; ten frames survive.

Attempts to solve problems with the Donisthorpe and Crofts projector mechanism continued for months at least, but were unresolvable. Public presentation of their films eluded them. Donisthorpe was unable to find a sponsor to develop the idea, a committee of experts appointed by publisher George Newnes having turned down the concept of moving pictures as ‘wild, visionary and ridiculous’. In the meantime, Edison and his team in America had had success with perforated film employed in a peep-show viewing machine. An arcade featuring Edison Kinetoscopes opened in London’s Regent Street on 17 October 1894. In November W.C. Crofts died, and any hope that might have remained for the eventual success of the Kinesigraph project died with him.

Donisthorpe continued his involvement in fringe politics, and wrote books on weights and measures and poll tax. In his 1898 travel yarn Down the Stream of Civilization – an account of a yachting trip with George Newnes – the friendship came about through their joint interest in chess – a melancholy Donisthorpe wrote: ‘Being unable to retrace our steps in Time, we decided to move forward in Space. Shall we never be able to glide back up the stream of Time, and peep into the old home, and gaze on the old faces? Perhaps when the phonograph and the kinesigraph are perfected, and some future worker has solved the problem of colour photography, our descendants will be able to deceive themselves with something very like it: but it will be but a barren husk: a soulless phantasm and nothing more. “Oh for the touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice that is still!”‘ Donisthorpe later invented a new language (Uropa), and assisted his sons in experiments with colour and sound motion pictures. He died at Hindhead, Surrey, on 30 January 1914.

Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (revised in 2000 from original entry by Brian Coe)