Remarkable brothers fully exposed

Letters
November 10, 1995

The current celebration of the centenary of cinema has brought to light many interesting materials which might not otherwise have become available and among these is this collection of letters written to, by and between the Lumire brothers during their most active years. The letters provide the reader with a front row seat from which to watch in close-up the historic processes by which cinema was discovered, invented, exploited; all the argued minutiae of claws and shutters, mirror-plates and ebonite shutter-discs; all the detailed musings over whether strips of cloth or smooth wooden surfaces will better prevent vibration, over the tightness of the slipway through which the film would pass on its way into the nickel-plated bins beneath; all the intricacies of the initial marketing plan, rapidly devised by the artful brothers in the closing months of 1895.

The reader can feel the tension mounting in those final weeks leading up to the first public screening in the Salon Indien of the Grand Cafe on December 28 where cinema was born. Only a few days before Auguste writes grandly to a correspondent: "Regarding our new device, the 'Cinematograph' we are unable to say when it will be available and we cannot at present give you any information on the subjectIAs to how the machine works, you will be able to see for yourself from Wednesday 25th onwards, boulevard des Capucines, where we shall be organising public performances." The "Cinematograph" (still between inverted commas) quickly became the great attraction of the new year break of 1896, with queues stretching for hundreds of yards, as groups of spectators departed the Grand Cafe in amazement, urging others to enter. Within a year 200 such machines were manufactured, machines which both filmed and projected the moving images. The letters explain much about the arrangements for this carefully judged operation at the Ruhmkorff Works of Jules Carpentier which enabled cinema to spread to five continents within a year. The Lumi res sold the whole spectacle and invented and manufactured the entire medium, including the ticketing and accounting systems.

The brothers obtained no fewer than 350 patents together and wrote hundreds of memoranda concerning photochemistry, photography, mechanics, optics, acoustics. Until late in their professional lives they took joint credit for everything they did, working together and dining together every day, living in adjoining and connecting houses. They developed colour photography, adopting a three-colour system; they worked at sound-on-film devices and set up partnerships to develop these.

Here we see the operations of the classic Victorian entrepreneurial inventor. The Lumires were inventor-industrialists, who managed to work with sufficient capital to commission substantial and often complex pieces of equipment. They created a great network of skilled scientists of varied backgrounds in many countries, and through this developed and produced all the accessories which enabled the rapid launch of cinema to take place. It required a flow of capital: the dry-process Blue Label plates which Louis had invented at home at the age of 17 had eventually become very profitable and the income was used to pursue the further range of inventions. But now the brothers bought shares in all their suppliers - glassmakers, papermills, chemicals - and the resulting group of satellite manufacturing companies enabled the medium to be rapidly established before any rival system could rear its head.

But the Lumires competed in a variety of fields simultaneously. Auguste was also a pioneer of medical radiology (he was the first person to X-ray a fractured bone). He added refinements to the newly invented motorcar, including a design which helped ladies to get in and out of them with their hats on. He was also the inventor of the catalytic heater which helps planes even today to take off in freezing conditions. (Auguste's son Henri became an early test pilot, who invented a technique by which a plane can break out of a corkscrew nosedive.) The family worked on bakelite and celluloid, their grand project necessitating an endless scrutiny of contemporary developments in materials and devices.

The Lumires also pursued a parallel career as philanthropists, this collection of letters providing examples of a vast and constant flow of begging letters.Ageing friends are rescued from distress. The brothers pay for a hospital which functions throughout the 1914-18 war; they underwrite all of the radiological costs. Then the letters show how the later decades of their long lives are spent collecting honours, evading the hated invader Hitler, generously straightening out the facts of cinematic history, sharing out the historic honours with the other pioneers and ensuring that Marey and Melies and all the others are ascribed their accurate roles; the Lumi res meanwhile accept a great mound of adulatory awards: postage stamps, commemorative exhibitions, state trinkets and honorofic positions. The activity provides a further phase in their lives.

For the Lumi res the task of industrial invention was directed at a project much wider than the building of a vast family fortune; not only cinema but the whole enterprise of finding and constructing it was for them a calling, a vocation; they practised a form of capitalism which has long ago faded to sepia. As Louis writes in one of these letters: "I was just lucky enough to be the first to get there."

Anthony Smith was director of the British Film Institute and is now president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Letters: Inventing the Cinema

Author - Auguste and Louis Lumier
Editor - Jacques Rittaud-Hutinet
ISBN - 0 571 17545 7
Publisher - Faber and Faber
Price - £20.00
Pages - 333
Translator - Pierre Hodgson

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments