Robert Paul was the leading pioneer of British film, and made the successful transfer from inventor to entrepreneur to remain a major figure in the industry for its first ten years. Paul was primarily an electrical engineer, and it was to engineering that he successfully returned when he decided to bow out of film.
Paul was born in Highbury, north London on 3 October 1869 and educated at the City and Guilds Technical College, Finsbury. He ran his electrical engineering business at 44 Hatton Gardens, London, from 1891. Famously, he stumbled into film in 1894 when asked to produce replica Kinetoscopes by two Greek businessmen who were exploiting the fact that Edison had neglected to patent his invention in Europe. Paul produced his own Kinetoscopes, and naturally finding Edison's own films barred to him, he went into film production himself, employing a photographer, Birt Acres, to assist him. Together they constructed a camera, and shot their first film in February 1895, showing their mutual acquaintance Henry Short outside Acres' home in Barnet. It was the first film to be shot and exhibited (through the peepshow Kinetoscope) in Britain. Other films followed, including the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race, Rough Sea at Dover and The Derby, before the two men split acrimoniously in June 1895.
Paul now worked on the logical next step, projecting motion pictures on a screen. He first exhibited the results on 21 February 1896 at Finsbury Technical College, the same day that the Lumiere Cinematographe opened to the London public at the Polytechnic. Paul's first film show was riddled with technical problems, but these were resolved by the time that his Theatrograph projector made its public debut at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly. Two days later, he exhibited the projector at Olympia. He began to find a rapidly growing market for his projectors, and in April started producing films once more (previous shows had used Edison titles and the films taken for him by Acres) to supply this burgeoning market.
Paul's first films were actualities, but he innovated in producing what was arguably the first British story film, The Soldier's Courtship (1896), featuring Fred Storey, Julie Seale, and Paul's wife Ellen. However, his most successful film of 1896 was undoubtedly that of the Derby. Paul was fortunate in filming possibly the most celebrated of all Derby wins, that of Persimmon (owned by the Prince of Wales). His feat of being able to show the film of the finish at two London music halls the day after the race caused a sensation and firmly established Paul at the forefront of the romantic version of British film history.
Paul's business flourished over the next ten years, built as much upon the reliable film machinery that he produced as the films that he made. Marked by a distinctive black edging to the prints, Paul's film output was distinguished particularly by trick films and news films. For the former, Paul turned to a former magician, Walter Booth, who, in films like The '?' Motorist (1906), produced some ingenious effects in the Melies mould, while his most notable actualities came from the films of the Anglo-Boer War taken for him by Colonel Walter Beevor and Sydney Melsom such as Cronje's Surrender to Lord Roberts (1900) (filmed by Beevor). Paul only served as his own filmmaker for a short period, but a playful ingenuity is readily in evidence among those of his films that survive, among them The Twins' Tea Party (1896); Two A.M.; or, the Husband's Return (1896); Come Along, Do! (1898) and A Chess Dispute (1903). Paul also produced proto-propaganda films in the form of the series Army Life; or, How Soldiers Are Made (1900). He gathered round him a talented group, several of whom would go on to play significant parts in early British film: G.H. Cricks, J.H. Martin, Frank Mottershaw Jr. and Jack Smith among them. His Animatograph projector was exported all over the world and he played a significant part in encouraging the spread of motion pictures worldwide, as well as establishing the foundations of a film industry at home.
Paul maintained his electrical business all of the time that he was involved in film production. He opened factories in London and New York, and in 1903 introduced the innovative Unipivot galvanometer. He retired from the film business in 1910, returned to engineering, and subsequently left this in 1920, when he amalgamated his business with the Cambridge Instrument Company. On his death in Wandsworth, London, 28 March 1943, he left £100,000 in shares to provide instruments of an unusual nature to aid physical research. Paul's career seems to have been blissfully free from crisis; he simply did everything right, and left the film industry at exactly the right time. Although a filmmaker himself for a short period only, his creative and industrial influence was immense.
John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England 1894-1901 [vols. 1-5] (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1996-1998)
John Barnes, 'Robert William Paul', in Stephen Herbert and Luke McKernan (eds.), Who's Who of Victorian Cinema: A Worldwide Survey (London: British Film Institute, 1996)
Brian Coe and Gordon Woodward, 'Paul, Robert William', in Lance Day and Ian McNeil (eds.), Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology (London: Routledge, 1996)
Rachael Low and Roger Manvell, The History of the British Film 1896-1906 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948)
Robert W. Paul, 'Before 1910: Kinematograph Experiences', Proceedings of the British Kinematograph Society, no. 38 (London: BKS, 1936)
Deac Rossell, Living Pictures: The Origins of the Movies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998)
Luke McKernan, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors