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Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema

The early years of film were dominated by competition between inventors in America and France, especially Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers . But while these have generally been considered the foremost pioneers of film, they were not the only crucial figures in its inception. Telling the story of the white-hot years of filmmaking in the 1890s, Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema seeks to restore Robert Paul, Britain’s most important early innovator in film, to his rightful place.
From improving upon Edison’s Kinetoscope to cocreating the first movie camera in Britain to building England’s first film studio and launching the country’s motion-picture industry, Paul played a key part in the history of cinema worldwide. It’s not only Paul’s story, however, that historian Ian Christie tells here. Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema also details the race among inventors to develop lucrative technologies and the jumbled culture of patent-snatching, showmanship, and music halls that prevailed in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Both an in-depth biography and a magnificent look at early cinema and fin-de-siècle Britain, Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema is a first-rate cultural history of a fascinating era of global invention, and the revelation of one of its undervalued contributors.

304 pages | 84 halftones, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Cinema and Modernity

Art: Art--General Studies, British Art

Film Studies

History: British and Irish History

Media Studies


"[Christie] has done an extraordinary job in creating an objective account of a moment in cinematographic history where there is often more emphasis cast on the importance of the early directors than the technologists that created the tools used to create the movies. It emerges that Paul was both; a combination that makes him unusually fascinating."

Engineering & Technology Magazine

"A clear labour of love and demonstration of dedication to research, Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema brings together the technical history of the evolution of British Cinema and the biography of one of its pioneers who, per Christie, has been sadly under-represented in narratives of the period so far. In order to work ‘toward making early film history accessible’ Christie blends research together into a narrative of technology and personal history. . . . required reading for students of British Cinema."

Early Popular Visual Culture

"With this book, Christie delivers not only an important building block in the exploration of the beginnings of cinema, but also a work that should interest all who grapple with the media history of early modernity."

MEDIENwissenschaf (translated from the original German)

"I owe a debt to Ian Christie’s 2019 book for its extensive comments on the films and their historical and cultural context, and the context of Paul’s life and non-film activities. The coverage of Paul’s family, friends, business associates, and many related aspects including late Victorian education and turn-of-the-century industry and business, will be invaluable to everyone who reads this book. Also, it spurred me on to take a deeper look at Paul’s apparatus in particular, expanding my knowledge considerably. During a difficult period in December 2019, reading the book and responding to its contents provided a focus that I needed. Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema represents a great deal of work over many years and will be much used by students of early cinema. . . . Christie’s energetic and enthusiastic championing of Paul – culminating in exhibitions, illustrated talks, a book, graphic novel, and ongoing blog – has placed the somewhat enigmatic but important pioneer in a new spotlight, especially with the general public."

Stephen Herbert | The Optilogue

Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema will likely remain the definitive monograph on a fascinating and influential early British film pioneer. Christie provides novel insights into how British cinema in its earliest years documented historical events and lucidly traces the origins of motion picture copyright wars. This is an outstanding study that is certain to be welcomed by film scholars and to transform the study and teaching of the early years of cinema."

Edward Dimendberg, Professor of Humanities, University of California, Irvine

"The product of years of painstaking research. . . . Christie reveals that Paul—by far the largest film producer in Britain in his era—was a significant competitor to the Lumières on the international stage. . ."

Sight & Sound

"Ian Christie has been researching Robert Paul for many years, he mentions 1994 as a starting point, and he is conscious of how little original material is available on Paul. Christie compensates for his by offering a great deal of context not only in relation to the development of the early film industry, but also in relation to the broader context of turn of the century life, in London specifically, but also internationally. He pays particular attention to the development of scientific education and the growth of electrical engineering as these were significant aspects of Paul’s life and career in addition to film. This approach brings forward the vastness of this early industry, its reliance on established inventions and places of entertainment and its truly global reach."

Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television

"Robert Paul is written with clarity and intelligence, is easy and enjoyable to read, and mainly avoids the jargon and theorizing that still complicate some approaches to cultural history... [It] acknowledges wider contexts and encourages the crossing of disciplinary boundaries."

Technology and Culture

"Ian Christie’s thorough and careful study of Robert W. Paul is an impressive book, the culmination of many years of research, and an excellent complement to several recent histories of early British cinema."

Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film

Table of Contents



1     Getting into the Picture Business
2     Flashback: An Engineer’s Education
3     “Adding Interest to Wonder”: The First Year in Film
4     Time Travel: Film, the Past and Posterity
5     “True Till Death!” Family Business
6     Home and Away: Networks of Nonfiction
7     Distant Wars: South Africa and Beyond
8     Telling Tales: Studio-Based Production
9     “Daddy Paul”: The Cultural Economy of Cinema in Britain
10   “My Original Business”: Paul’s Technical and Scientific Work
12   Paul and Early Film History

A    “A Novel Form of Exhibition or Entertainment, Means for Presenting the Same”: Paul’s “Time Machine” Patent Application, 1895
B     Flotation advertisement, 1897
Robert Paul Productions 1895–1909


Theatre Library Association: Richard Wall Memorial Award

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