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wordsworth donisthorpe; the misunderstood visionary of film

wordsworth donisthorpe; the misunderstood visionary of film


You may have already read the Le Prince article in this paper but, if not, you should know that Louis Le Prince produced the world’s first ever film here in Leeds when he made the Roundhay Garden Scene in 1888. I unearthed some real nuggets when researching my book, How Leeds Changed The World, and one was about a fabulous Leeds lad with the fantastic name of Wordsworth Donisthorpe; a misunderstood visionary.

Well over a decade before the first Le Prince film, Wordsworth – and yes, he was related to a rather well known poet named William – filed a patent for a film camera. By all accounts it was one of the first inventions to use sensitive paper to capture an image, well before Eastman Kodak’s breakthrough transparent celluloid film was first produced in 1889.

The problem with his idea was that it came twelve years before Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden breakthrough, and the money men of 1876 thought he was a nutter. He took his idea to a panel of London experts – think of a Victorian Dragon’s Den – who rejected his concept of moving pictures as ‘wild, visionary and ridiculous,’ and denied Wordworth any funding. ‘Pictures that move? Are you a complete mentalist?’ They simply couldn’t accept that pictures could move.

He dropped the project, until he heard of the work of Le Prince in his home city of Leeds. It seems that upon hearing reports of Le Prince’s own moving pictures, Wordsworth jumped up and shouted, ‘Wet the bed, I was gonna do that… I told you I wasn’t a nutter. FFS, I could have been rich… ’kin’ Southerners.’ Or words to that effect. I wasn’t actually there, so I completely made up what he said – he might have just tutted.

Anyway, Wordsworth dusted down his invention, filed another patent in 1889, got cracking, and became, as far as I can see, the second person in the world to make a moving film. He definitely produced the first ever film of London with his footage of Trafalgar Square in 1890. These moving images are certainly before Edison and the Lumière brothers, and Wordsworth was cited later in legal actions trying to stop Edison from gaining patents for the moving image and associated technologies, a legal battle Edison mysteriously won… it was rigged.


Another angle to this story that got me a bit giddy was that Wordsworth’s dad was a mill engineer and inventor, with a number of patents to his own name – he designed a successful wool-combing machine which was still being used in the 1970s. The young Wordsworth followed and watched his dad around the mills, where he came up with his cunning plan. He employed much of the technology of the textile industry which he’d seen his dad working on to produce his camera.

In proper Chitty Chitty Bang Bang stylee – or Wallace and Gromit, for you more tender of age – he replaced the falling combs of his father’s square motion wool-combing machine with falling photographic plates and employed the kind of shuttles used in mills to carry and rotate the film. He also deployed a treadle, fly wheel, pulley system and automatic braking on the film.

Away from film Donisthorpe also invented a new language, called Uropa, was a political activist, an individualist anarchist and, in 1885, co-founded the British Chess Association and the British Chess Club. His brother Horace is considered by some to be the greatest figure in British myrmecology – the study of ants. Horace was also a coleopterist – into beetles – and discovered new species. His massive collection of British beetles is held at the Natural History Museum.

Getting back to Wordsworth; given backing, he could have been the first person in the world to make moving films, ten years before anyone else… how cruel is fate?  Being a nutter, he couldn’t raise the funds to develop his camera so he had even less chance of realising his other idea, that of making his films talk, which he had planned from the beginning. In 1878 Wordsworth had a letter published by Nature (the world’s most cited science journal) suggesting that his invention be used in conjunction with Edison’s newly invented phonograph to record and reproduce dramas and, more specifically, to make a talking picture of William Gladstone, the then Prime Minister. If he had his way there might never have been such a thing as silent films.


So I claim that, with Le Prince and Donisthorpe, Leeds not only produced the world’s first ever moving film, but also its second. If Wordsworth had got his money we would have had the first and second… oh no, wait a minute, we would have just had them in a different order… but the first might have been years earlier. How brilliant is Leeds?

I’ll leave you with some of Wordsworth’s own words; some of his poetic babbling about his vision.

“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!”


Originally published in The City Talking Leeds: Issue 08