Deac Rossell | 9 February 2022
To the Editors,
I was very pleased to see in the latest issue of Kosmorama, No. 281, an article by Casper Tybjerg on the early Danish film exhibitions of Vilhelm Pacht. The article was properly researched, subtly written, and enlarged our understanding of this important event, so often misunderstood in the past, as illustrated by the historiography that Tybjerg explores in depth. I learned much from this article, and commend the editors of Kosmorama for their perceptiveness in spending time, effort and space in bringing it to a wider public. We need many more articles like this one to begin to more fully understand the events and the impact of early cinema, and to begin to sort out its international nature. I do hope that some of Tybjerg’s suggested bibliography on ‘entangled’ history turns out to be written in a language that I can easily read, since the concept as he outlines it is one of central importance to dealing with the earliest period of film history.
Tybjerg’s article is meticulously researched and written with mature and thoughtful reflection on his subject. Even so, I would like to disagree with one element of his work, where his interpretation (rather than his research) has gone astray: the attribution of Pacht’s projection apparatus and first films to the British entrepreneur Robert William Paul. In the article, Tybjerg’s evidence for his new attribution is based on two statements by later historians: one from John Barnes, the other from Ian Christie’s recent book on Robert Paul (2019). Tybjerg quotes Barnes from his book The Beginnings of the Cinema in Britain, Volume 1 (1988, second edition), page 76, calling an Acres advertisement offering his Kineopticon from 1 August 1896 “a canard,” and then quotes Barnes again that “as of 29 October  the apparatus had not appeared on the market.” (p. 76). He then quotes Christie’s assertion (p. 58) that “Paul was in fact the only manufacturer in Europe selling workable projectors on the open market in March-April 1896.” Although Christie has left himself some wiggle-room by saying “workable” and “on the open market,” both his and Barnes’ assertions are demonstrably false, and should most likely have been caught by the Kosmorama peer-reviewers.
It has been known for a long time that John Barnes had an unaccountable prejudice against the work of Birt Acres, and throughout his writings repeatedly diminished or even distorted Acres’ work. Any careful scholar today reading his book on the beginnings of the cinema in Britain should see this prejudice quickly and be careful about relying on Barnes’ judgements — his denigration of Acres is probably the most glaring error in all of his work. As for Christie, most current historians of early film gave up on broad assertions of being ‘first’ or being ‘only’ a long time ago. The new business of moving pictures did begin in a very small way and from a more restricted base than we often realize, but the gold-rush of moving pictures was apparent quickly in early 1896, and the names of British manufacturers whose apparatus might have been seen by Pacht on his visit to London in spring, 1896, are the names of inventors/manufacturers whose apparatus was already in use in public shows before he came to the city. My text in Quartet that is quoted in Kosmorama was based on my chronology of early cinema published in Film History in 1995, and that publication, or its new incarnation which will be out in the autumn of this year (or both) will put paid to Christie’s claim of the exclusive, ‘only,’ status of Robert Paul.
Worse, having in the first place cited two dubious sources, Tybjerg then declares that “If Barnes’ analysis is correct – and it seems convincing to me – the Acres apparatus was (to use an anachronistic term) vaporware.” A feeling that “it seems convincing to me” is not a proper scholarly assertion: this is not evidence for the unavailability of an Acres projector at the time. There has been a lingering impression in early cinema studies, probably occasioned by reading Barnes, that when Acres split up with Paul, he lost something in his career that was irredeemable: the brilliant engineer Paul was no longer involved with the photographer and chemist Acres, so the career of the latter limped painfully and hesitantly along without a component necessary for his later success in moving pictures. The assumption that this impression hides is that Acres was actually interested in film exhibition or apparatus manufacture for public amusement, an assumption that indicates how early cinema historians have valorized exhibitors and manufacturers in their accounts.
Since they have left the easiest surviving evidence for historians, they play an over-important role in early cinema studies: where are the accounts of film raw stock manufacturers, of distributors and agents, of pirates and dupers, of the evolution of filmmaking accessories like perforators and printers? Acres from the first saw moving pictures as a scientific extension of photography, and wanted to enter the profession that he knew best, supplying raw stock – and a few films – to like-minded well-educated figures. His projection apparatus was sold only to a few middle-class photographically or artistically experienced colleagues, a category that easily encompasses Pacht.
The shadowy impression of Acres having inadequate mechanical support after becoming independent of Paul is wholly false. When Acres separated from Paul, he turned for engineering skills to working with a major business whom he knew from his previous work at Elliott & Son in Barnet, one whose clients at the time were institutions like the Bank of England, the Imperial Russian Government, and the India Office. At that time, this company also supplied plate washing and cutting machinery to about half of the photographic industry in Great Britain, including the Eastman Photographic Materials Company, the Imperial Dry Plate Company, and the Gem Dry Plate Company, amongst others, as well as Elliott and Sons (and, interestingly they were also suppliers to Charles Babbage): this company was R W Munro, still in business today. Casper Tybjerg could not know of this connection to Acres as it has not yet been published, but the Munro order books for the 1890's include Acres’ order of June, 1896, for “2 projection machines, as before, complete” (Works Order Book Ldbcm:a/12/11/2/7: October 1895 to January 1902, Munro Collection, Haringay Archive Service). Particularly interesting about this order is that the number ‘2' is stricken out, and replace by a scribbled ‘3', a change that comes just at themoment when Pacht would have reached out to Acres once again to replace his damaged projector after the fire in Copenhagen.
Perhaps my quartet of injunctions for early film historians that Tybjerg invokes to structure his article should, in fact, instead have been a quintet, with the added declaration that not every snippet of contemporary newspaper research is necessarily and factually true. I have no alternate interpretation for the report he cites that Pacht’s fire did not damage his projection apparatus; there are many possible (unknown) reasons for this exception to other accounts and to the historiography of the event. If there were a fifth rule, it might be equally relevant to the series of newspaper articles that Robert W Paul inserted in The Era in spring 1895 in which he declared himself the “sole author” and the “maker” of the films that Birt Acres was taking and developing and printing for him. These advertisements are the basis for the “Paul-Acres films” in John Barnes’ book, and it is genuinely the case in 2022 that apart from these self-serving advertisements, there is no evidence whatsoever that Robert Paul participated in any way in the making of the 1895 films, or their development or printing. With rare exceptions (Hauke Lange-Fuchs, Richard Brown, Luke Dixon) these “Paul-Acres films” are the historiographical legacy of the sidelined Acres, an inherited mistake that needs re-examination. It is notoriously difficult to make proofs from films in this period, given the flexibility of titles and of descriptions, but Acres did make a Railway Station Scene in April 1895 (noted in The Era on 20 April) and several more by mid-May 1896 at the latest, when they were used in his exhibition at Piccadilly, including Finsbury Park Station and Highgate Tunnel.
I do not want to inundate the author with minutiae, as there are always further proofs to be found, but as I said in my first work on Pacht’s shows in Film History (v7 n2, 1995) he presented a “Kinoptikon, which hints of Birt Acres’ Kineopticon, although cinema nomenclaturein 1896 was by no means settled, and could take on unusual forms travelling across language borders.” On this issue, it does seem to me on balance that if Pacht had a projector from Robert Paul, it would more likely have been termed linguistically as a variant of a Theatrograph or Animatographe, which was the term under which Paul’s apparatus was exhibited in Great Britain, South Africa, Spain, France, Portugal, Germany and Russia in the first half of 1896.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because the days of early cinema are too robust, too urgent, too chaotic and too opportunistic to be distilled into a simple story of competition between dominant and minority figures, and hence be flattened into a linear narrative, for example a competition between Lumière and Edison. The details of every event need to be preserved and celebrated and analysed. Cinema survived its ‘novelty’ period because it proliferated in venues large and small, quickly building a diverse audience who moved beyond their first astonishment at the illusion of motion itself and who began to encompass a new kind of vision that grew into a staple of 20th century information and entertainment. Mistakes that are built into recording the earliest days of film presentation only become magnified over time and grow into myths, rules if you will, that help determine what and how we see images today. So it is important to take the right steps forward in accounting for events at the birth of the cinema, recognizing their diversity and supporting their individuality.
Casper Tybjerg | 23 February 2022
To the editors:
I want to thank Deac Rossell for his long and detailed response to my article and his generous praise. He raises some points of disagreement regarding my conclusion that it was more likely that Vilhelm Pacht acquired his film projector from Robert Paul than from Birt Acres. I stand by this conclusion, and I would like to explain why.
My conclusion rests primarily on the films making up Pacht’s first show. All identifications of early films on the basis of translated titles and impressionistic descriptions must remain tentative. However, I believe I have provided a good deal of evidence that the films were of three kinds: some were films made by Robert Paul, some were so-called “Paul/Acres films”, and two were Edison kinetoscope films. Rossell objects to the designation “Paul/Arces Films”, which comes from John Barnes’ filmography. Rossell argues that Acres should be considered the sole author of these films. I do not have strong opinions on this matter, and I used the designation simply for the purposes of reference. What matters in this context is that after his rupture with Acres, Paul retained the right to sell these films. Pacht therefore could have purchased Rough Sea at Dover and the other “Paul/Acres films” from either Acres or Paul. The program includes no films exclusive to Acres (for instance, his films from Kiel), but it does include several films exclusive to Paul (Arrival of the Paris Express at Calais, David Devant, Blackfriars Bridge). Rossell disputes my identification of the train film by mentioning a couple of Acres films showing arriving trains, but overlooks that I note that one of the newspapers (Aftenbladet, 7 June 1896) specifically mentions that the train arrives at Calais (sec. “What do we find when we look for ourselves?” §13); it seems very difficult to construct a scenario where the reporter would come up with this detail if the film was shot at Finsbury Park Station. Pacht’s program combines Paul-made films with Acres films that Paul also had for sale, and the most economical explanation for this admixture is that Pacht bought all the films from Paul. This, in turn, makes it highly likely that he got the projector from him as well.
As corroborating evidence for this conclusion, I point out that Ian Christie and John Barnes both deny that Acres would have been able to supply Pacht with a projector in April-May 1896 (Pacht presumably had acquired the projector no later than 8 May, when he publicized the coming film show in the Copenhagen press). I cite Barnes’ conclusion, on the basis of an analysis of Acres’ public statements, that he didn’t yet have projectors for sale at the end of October, and comment that “it seems convincing to me”. Rossell complains that this is “not a proper scholarly assertion”, but I think he misreads me as offering personal gut feelings as additional evidence. I intended the remark to show that I had found Barnes’ argument to be internally consistent, but that I had not independently examined the evidence.
Now, Rossell insists that it is false that Paul was the only manufacturer who had projectors for sale in the spring of 1896, and that I (and/or the reviewers of the article) should have known that. Rossell points to other inventors (Acres, for one, but in his article “Quartet,” Rossell also mentions JH Rigg & EO Kumberg and Alfred Wrench) who held public film shows (according to Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, though, Wrench only “entered the field” in August 1896). Presenting a film show to the public, however, is not the same as offering projectors for sale. I do not recall having seen published evidence of any manufacturers besides Paul doing the latter during the relevant time period, but my reading of the literature has not been exhaustive, and I could certainly have overlooked something.
Rossell bolsters his case by offering new, unpublished evidence that Acres filed an order for two, then corrected to three, “projection machines, as before, complete” with the R W Munro company in June 1896. This is an important discovery, and it certainly undermines Barnes’ conviction that “no more than three [Acres] machines were ever manufactured” (Barnes 1998: 76) to say nothing of my overly glib comment about “vaporware”. I look forward to reading more about this new research, which makes it much harder to claim that Pacht could not have obtained a projector from Acres.
Rossell further argues that Acres would have considered Pacht among “the photographically or artistically experienced colleagues” to whom he was willing to sell his projection apparatus. I am less sure that Pacht would have met with the approval of the fastidious Acres; my impression of Pacht was that he was very much a showman, far more interested in moving pictures as a visual spectacle than as a scientific advance. However, this is only speculation; there is no strong evidence either way.
But why would anyone think of Acres as the supplier of the projector in the first place? Asking the question in this way reveals that the historical record only offers two reasons for surmising that Pacht obtained his projector from Acres. One is the presence of films made by Acres (like Rough Sea at Dover) on the program. The other is the similarity of the name Pacht used for his moving picture show, “Kinoptikon,” to Acres’ “Kineoptikon”. We have already discussed the first, and as Rossell himself wrote of the second in “A Chronology of Cinema, 1889-1896” (Film History 7:2, 1995): “this hint of nomenclature is not conclusive” (p. 212). Pacht may have swiped the name or come up with it on his own; it rhymes with “Skandinavisk Panoptikon”, the wax museum down the street from the Panorama. I discovered after completing the article that while most of the waxen heads were sculpted by others, all the dummies at this establishment were made and posed by none other than Vilhelm Pacht (see the original visitor’s guides, digitized and available through Det Kgl. Bibliotek).
My conclusion remains that the evidence from the films is stronger than the evidence from the name, and the evidence from the films points to Paul rather than Acres as the supplier. I do not claim that this is a definitive conclusion. Both the Edison films on Pacht’s first program and the variety of French films on his second program establishes that Pacht put together his programs from more than one source, and he could conceivably have bought films from Paul and a projector from Acres. I just do not see any good reason for preferring this hypothesis, and Occam’s razor certainly cuts against it.
Rossell also appears unconvinced by my discovery that Pacht’s projector was not destroyed by the fire which broke out at the Panorama the night before 18 June 1896. He suggests that future film historians should be enjoined to remember “that not every snippet of contemporary newspaper research is necessarily and factually true”, somewhat uncharitably suggesting that I believe the opposite, despite my saying explicitly, “One should certainly not assume that all 1890s press reports are reliable” (Sec. “What Should We Do with Contradictory Information”, §3). When I cite the newspaper København for its explicit statement that the projector was undamaged by the fire, Rossell dismissively describes this as an “exception to other accounts and to the historiography of the event”. This is misleading. As I show, the historiography of the event goes back to Waldekranz in 1955 and Engberg in 1958. They both cite only the newspaper Politiken, and they both dial up the drama in comparison with the account the newspaper actually provides. All subsequent accounts simply repeat what they say.
When Waldekranz and Engberg wrote that Pacht’s projector was burned in the fire, they assumed that the “machine employed by the Copenhagen Panorama to produce its moving lantern-pictures” mentioned in Politiken’s account was the projector. It was not. Apart from the article from København that I quote, I have found a detailed account published in Social-Demokraten the morning of the fire that confirms that the “machine” in question was a generator, and that the projector was not damaged:
Mr. Pacht, who was at Nimb [a restaurant] in Tivoli and had seen the flames from there, hurried to the site of the fire to save the photographs and the small, costly machine used for the production of the living pictures; here, he received the happy news that his assistant, Liebmann, already had brought them unharmed out of the burning building.
After the passage of one half-hour the fire had been put out, and though the building itself has not suffered any considerable damage, the performances will have to be suspended for some days; a small gas engine used for the projections, which stood on the square outside the building at the very spot where the fire began, suffered quite a bit of damage and cannot be used. Mr. Pacht has luckily acquired an improved English engine, which was going to be put in place while the old one was still in operation. But now the performances will suffer an interruption until the new engine can begin to operate. (Social-Demokraten, 18 June 1896)
It was an oversight on my part not to include this additional source in the original article, but I hope that this can convince any remaining skeptics that Pacht’s projector (whatever its manufacture) did in fact emerge unscathed from the flames.
Associate Professor of Film Studies
University of Copenhagen