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Beth explores the stories behind our new discovery—the first colour moving pictures—including the people who created this incredible film.

Following on from my previous blog post about the discovery of the earliest colour moving pictures, I’d like to tell you more stories behind the invention.

One aspect I’ve found most interesting is learning about the people involved. The main character in all this is Edward Raymond Turner.

Edward strikes me as a person who had creativity and technical skill in abundance. In 1898 he was working in a  London studio making the earliest commercial examples of colour photographs. It is likely it occurred to him that perhaps he could apply the same technique to the latest invention—moving pictures.

In 1901–02 Edward made a number of test shots, believed to be the earliest example of moving film in colour, which you can see displayed in the museum.

Still from footage recorded by Edward Turner, 1902.

Image taken from original footage by Edward Turner, Science Museum Group collection

Despite pioneering the first colour moving image, Edward did not reap the rewards of his labours. Sadly he died in March 1903, aged just 29.

Following the old adage that behind every great man is a great woman, Mrs Edith Mary Turner played her part in this story.

Picture believed to be Edward Turner (1873-1903) and Edith Turner (1867-1962), c.1896

Image believed to be Edward and Edith Turner kindly lent by a family member

After Edward died, Charles Urban, the film entrepreneur who took over financing the project in 1902, contacted an associate—the film pioneer George Albert Smith—to see if he would continue with the experiments. Urban promised Edith that should Edward’s process prove commercially successful, she would receive some return.

Charles Urban (1867-1942), c.1910.

Charles Urban (1867–1942), c.1910. Science Museum Group collection

Mrs Turner kept in touch with Urban, who wrote to her at the end of 1903 with the assurance that her financial interest was:

more sacred to me than any of my own investment.

Within a year, Smith reported to Urban that he thought Turner’s process unworkable, and that he was pursuing a simpler process that he thought more commercially viable.

George Albert Smith (1864-1959)

George Albert Smith (1864-1959). Science Museum Group collection

In 1907 Mrs Turner saw a newspaper article about Smith’s colour process. She wrote to Urban, who asked his office manager to reply. His letter read:

Regarding your late husband’s colour photographic scheme, this was not brought to a sufficient practical point, and Mr Smith’s idea is somewhat of a different nature.

She did not receive any money as a result of Edward’s experiments. In the meantime, she had returned to teaching piano lessons to feed her family. She never remarried and lived to the age of 95, dying in 1962.

I find Edith and Edward’s story captivating, yet other intriguing people play their part in the story. From the slightly mysterious Frederick Marshall Lee, cricketer and man of means, who first supported Turner and whose name appear on the 1899 patent, to our own heroes: Michael Harvey, Curator of Cinematography, for enthusiasm and research, and Brian Pritchard and David Cleveland for their immense skill and the patience to piece the film back together.

Lee and Turner Colour Projector, 1902.

Lee and Turner Colour Projector, 1902. Science Museum Group collection

You can find out more about the Lee and Turner colour process in a new display in the Kodak Gallery. See Turner’s original projector and watch the original footage, now restored by the museum.

5 comments on “Stories behind the discovery of the first colour moving pictures

  1. This is a message for Beth Hughes. I am attached to the African Studies Centre at Oxford University and have a special interest in Zambia. I am trying to track down a film that was made in 1906-7 by one of four teams that Charles Urban sent to Africa in 1906. Their film of the Victoria Falls is on line through the Colonial Archive. I am trying to find film which must be part of the same film that showed the laying of part of the railway through what is now Zambia. See http://colonialfilm.org.uk/node/503

    I have written to the National Media Museum, but they don’t promise to reply very quickly. I wonder if you are anyone else out there knows anything about these Urban African films.

    1. Hi Hugh – I can assure that our Corporate Information and Enquiries Officer is dealing with your enquiry, though you won’t get an immediate response as we need to look into it thoroughly. Good luck with your research, Emma.

  2. Thanks very much – I look forward to hearing from the enquiries officer, and from anyone else out there who may know about the whereabouts of these films. I feel that if the Victoria Falls section of the film survives, then there should be more out there.

  3. I know it’s getting close to Christmas when people tend to go on leave, but is there any news on my enquiry?

    Hugh

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