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Originating in Leeds

Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Cinematographer

Wordsworth Donisthorpe was born in Leeds in 1847. After studying at Cambridge University he qualified as a barrister and moved to London. His father, George, was an engineer and inventor working in the textile industry who had moved from Leicester to West Yorkshire and gone into partnership with Samuel Cunliffe Lister. Donisthorpe senior had a number of patents to his name and Lister was one of the most prolific patentees, with 150 to his name. Lister patented a successful woolcombing machine (which was still in use in the 1970s) but later admitted that George Donisthorpe had actually provided the creative input.


Wordsworth Donisthorpe clearly had his father’s innovative drive, but his interest (apart from politics) was mainly to do with cinematography. In 1876 he applied for patent protection for an invention which used glass plates to take a series of photographs at intervals to give the impression of movement (GB 4344 of 1876). The picture was illuminated by an electric spark. It was one of the first inventions which used sensitive paper to capture the image. This was before Eastman Kodak’s transparent celluloid film was first produced in 1889. Donisthorpe proposed that linking this machine with the Phonograph, patented by Edison in 1878, could create moving and talking pictures.


Donisthorpe's invention received provisional patent protection only. At this time it was possible to file a brief  (provisional) description of the invention, with the full description following later. Often, the full description was never filed, as in this case. It is possible that the costs of obtaining a patent were significant here.


Several inventors around the world were working independently on similar equipment  and therefore where patent protection was required it was important to file the application as soon as possible. In 1889 along with his cousin William Crofts, Donisthorpe patented a second camera and a projector (GB12921 of 1889). The British patent was granted, but when they applied in the US the application initially hit problems. The US Patent Office examiners pointed out that it was very similar to the patent previously filed by Augustin Le Prince and granted in 1888. Both described a method of taking a series of pictures and then projecting them on to a surface. 


It is believed that Donisthorpe's knowledge of wool-combing machines influenced how he constructed his camera which incorporated a treadle, fly wheel and pulley system and automatic braking on the film. Donisthorpe and Crofts set up their camera in a building overlooking Trafalgar Square and took a sequence of shots of the busy street scene. A number of frames of this film still exist giving a clear moving image. Finding an effective means of projecting the filmed image was more difficult, and costly. Funding was not easy to obtain as many people still saw the idea of moving pictures as ridiculous. This difficulty hit several of the pioneers in this field, and Donisthorpe was never able to overcome it.

Donisthorpe died on 30th January, 1914.



Document icon Learning article provided by: Leeds Library and Information Service | 

Comment on this page

  • Posted by Bill Chapmam on 24/01/2010

    According to a volume in Esperanto ("Historio de la Mondolingvo) by a Latvian called Ernest Drezen, Wordsworth Donisthorpe published a planned international language,a rival to Esperanto, in 1913.

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