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Born in Bristol, William Green began working as an apprentice to a photographer in 1869 and opened his first studio in Bath in 1877. By then he had married Victoria Helena Friese and adopted her surname, adding an 'e' to his own. The more cultivated ‘William Friese-Greene’ presumably worked, Within four years he had opened another studio in Bath, one in Bristol and one in Plymouth. In 1885 he opened two studios in London, one at 69 New Bond St and the other at 92 Piccadilly. In 1887 he went into partnership with Arthur Collings. In a biography of Friese-Greene published in the 1940s, their receptionist, Winifred Tagg, would recall a dingy atmosphere, a dressing room that was "narrow, cold, dark, and furnished with a deplorable horse hair sofa and a paint shy, second hand dresser", all in contrast to the respectable appearance of their clientele. More ominously she remembered Friese-Greene’s slapdash attitude to the business, taking days off and missing appointments. In 1888 the partnership with Collings was dissolved.
By this time Friese-Greene had become interested in the possibilities of motion pictures. With John Roebuck Rudge he built a machine they called the biophantascope then on his own began experimenting with celluloid film stock. He employed an engineer, Mortimer Evans, to help build a motion picture camera and in June 1889 applied for a patent for a “chronophotographic” camera. Although the camera featured several features that would become standard in cine cameras, perforated celluloid film for example, other inventors like Louis le Prince and Etienne Jules Marey had been experimenting with the same ideas. Friese-Greene gave public demonstrations and articles about the new camera were published in Scientific American, but it could not generate the level of interest he expected. Facing bankruptcy, he sold the patent for £500. The buyer let it lapse.
Friese-Greene never really recovered from the failure, his marriage collapsed and at one point he was jailed for conducting business as a bankrupt. Through the rest of his life he continued to experiment with photography, taking out some eighty patents including one for a process for printing photographs as cigarette cards and another for a colour film process he called Biocolour. Another inventor, Charles Urban, had taken out a patent for a process he called Kinemacolor and claimed Biocolour was an infringement. He sued. Surviving testimony indicates it was easy for Urban’s lawyers to depict Friese-Greene as a deluded eccentric.
On May 5, 1921, Friese-Greene was attending a film conference in London when he suffered a heart attack and died. Typically, his death marked a reversal in fortunes. A biography, Friese-Greene, Portrait of an Inventor, was written by Ms Ray Allister, was written in 1948 and in 1951 a film based upon it, The Magic Box, starring Robert Donat and Laurence Olivier, released. To the British, if no one else, he was the inventor of of cinema.
[Biography provided by John Toohey, April 30, 2009]