HG Wells helped to patent a Time Machine

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Shadow Traps is a story in which the marginalia of history take centre stage for once. Having said that, there are some digressions that are just too far beyond the scope of the book for them to be included in it, which is why this Updates page is so useful. Take for example, this article from the December 19th 1934 edition of The Evening News, so wonderful it deserves quoting in its entirety:


“There Was a ‘Time Machine’!

I often wonder how many Londoners have been inside the library of the Patent Office in Southampton Buildings. In the old days impecunious journalists and writers, those whom Phil May used to call the ‘stranded gentry,’ constantly sought its hospitality in order to grind out their literary wares.

Ernest Dowson, the Cockney poet, knew it well. Towards the end of his short and tragic life, when he starved on the London streets and wrote that famous poem Cynara, which has lately inspired a film, he often sought warmth and shelter in this building.

The library houses about twenty-five miles of shelves packed with the stories and specifications of English inventions from the year 1617 to the present day – a most amazing record of human ingenuity, and frequently, too, it must be admitted, of human eccentricity. There is something profoundly daunting in the vast piles of volumes which include many thousands of wild-goose ideas which have ruined, and others which have enriched, their patentees. Taking out a patent must frequently be almost as desperate as spending one’s last 10s in buying a ticket in the Irish Sweep….

The Birth of Films

The honour of heading the list and of receiving the first patent, granted in 1617, belongs to a London publisher – one Aaron Rapburne – who was no doubt thinking of bringing out some form of illustrated paper. He was ‘graunted a priviledge for the terme of XXL. yeares of the sole making, carveing, describeing, and graveing in copper, brass, or other metalle, alle suche and soe manie pictures, plottes, or descripcions, and to imprint and sette for the and selle the same.’

Patent No. 418, dated 15th May, 1718, is a portable revolving cannon by James Puckle. His specification is partly in rhyme, and entitled ‘A Defence’:-

‘Defending King George, your country and laws,

Is defending yourselves and the Protestant cause.

For bridges, breaches, lines, and passes,

Ships, boats, houses, and other places.’

He points out that his weapon takes two kinds of bullets – round ones to be fired at Christians, and square bullets for Turks.

The Patent Office granted the first patent for a ‘movie’ camera and projector – an invention initiated by W. Friese-Greene, a native of Bristol, whose specification was first lodged on June 21st, 1889, and completed on March 13th, 1890, for which he was granted letters patent No. 10131. This is the first patent specification in the world to give full particulars for both taking and exhibiting moving pictures by photographic means, as we understand the term Kinematography at the present day.

Five years later, Mr. H. G. Wells became interested in moving pictures, and, with the aid of Mr. Robert W. Paul, put forward a patent application for a ‘Time Machine’ that anticipated most of the stock methods and devices of the screen drama.

One of the strangest specifications is for Cadman’s flying machine. All the calculations for the cords and fittings are worked out in thirteens – not dozens. The inventor was superstitious! Cadman attempted to fly his machine from the spire of St. Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, in 1739, but he lost his life through a control cord – was it a thirteenth cord? – being drawn too tightly.


Patent No. 14204 explains a “New Method of getting gold from Wheat. Chopped straw is soaked in water for twenty-four hours and the scum containing a thin skin of gold is caught up.” We have yet to hear of the farmer who has made his fortune this way!

No. 106461 is a Great War invention, dated 1916. It is a gun-helmet, and is accompanied by a most fantastic diagram. The gun-helmet fits on a soldier’s head and rests on a well-padded lining. The trigger is operated by a pneumatic bulb held in the soldier’s mouth. The inventor proudly adds that the tops of the helmet may be used as a frying pan!

Specification No. 6001, dated 1884, gives the formula of some miraculous pills which “will cause even the most melancholy person to become sprightly and gay.” The pills contained “the scent of the hair of healthy females” mixed with several drugs;  but the inventor is careful to warn us that “fair hair must be used for the treatment of a fair person, and black hair for a dark person.”

A Century Too Soon

In 1823 a man name Ronalds took out a patent for an electric telegraph, and actually proved its genuineness by giving a working demonstration over eight miles of wire. The B.B.C. is clearly foreshadowed by Ronalds in the notes of his invention. He asks: “Why should not the King hold Councils at Brighton with his Ministers in London? Why should not our Government govern at Portsmouth almost as promptly as in Downing-street? Why should our criminals escape by means of our foggy climate? Let us have an electrical conversazione office which will pass along business and interesting news all over the Kingdom.”

The Government of that day was rather peevish with Mr. Ronalds because he hinted at that things needed speeding up, and the official reply was definitely snappy: “We consider electrical telegraphs too fantastical to be of any service. None other than the semaphores now in use will ever be adopted.”

Then there is Thomas Wildgoose – yes, I give you my word that Wildgoose is the real name mentioned in the records. In the year 1659 this man seems to have been testing out a kind of land and sea tank which he claimed would “plough grounds without horse and oxen, and run upon the water as swift in calms and more safe in storms than boats in full sail.”

When I entered the library at about eight o’clock in the evening the curious long, galleried hall was full of students and would-be inventors poring over specifications or muttering figures and formulas beneath their breath. It seemed quite a homely place with many cosy little alcoves in which veteran users of the library have their own special corners.

“Yes,” said one of the officials, “there are some strange readers.” He pointed to an old and bent man who was sitting in an alcove. “We call him Father Time, and he has been a regular visitor here for the last twenty years. He arrives each morning soon after we are open, and we wake him up at 8:30 each evening in order to warn him that the library closes at 9 o’clock!”


Two officers in charge sit at the information bureau. Questions are fired at them from all quarters… “Who patented the first scooter?” “May I see the latest patents for whaling implements?” “Can you turn me up So-and-So’s monograph on the treatment of leprosy?”

“I suppose most inventors are eccentric?” I suggested to the officer on the dais.

“Ah!” he replied sadly. “You can almost hear the bees buzzing in their heads when they come near you!”

At that moment an old man shuffled up to the officer. “Will you please tell me what day of the week Christmas falls on in 1990?” he asked.



There are so many meandering trips to be taken from each and every paragraph of this article, from Cadman the Aviator to square bullets for Turks, but for now, two quick qualifications: First, HG Wells did not actually patent the Time Machine idea himself,  but he did assist RW Paul with it, advising and talking through the idea with him – and what an idea it was (I have put the actual patent specifications at the end of this article) – a mix of history lesson, amusement-park-ride-technology and multimedia extravaganza, all imagined and planned out, right at the dawn of the age of cinema.

Second, contrary to what the article claims, William Friese-Greene was not the first to patent a motion picture camera design, not by a long way (and to find out more and also understand why he was talked up so, pledge for a copy of The Shadow Traps!)

Two more names are mentioned at the beginning of The Evening News’ article: Phil May and Ernest Dowson. May’s was a name I was already familiar with. A hugely popular and influential artist and cartoonist, he was born in Leeds and lived amongst the same terraced houses (and at a similar time) as Le Prince’s assistants. It always fascinates me to see the intersections in these remarkable characters’ lives.

As for Ernest Dowson, his life was as dramatic as the article suggests and his poem, Cynara, was a quietly beautiful work, largely forgotten today. And even its span of twenty-one lines takes us on to new, twisting stories, for example, his ‘I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion’, seems to have been used by the great Cole Porter for his song ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’ from the musical Kiss Me, Kate and the line “the feast is finished and the lamps expire” was quoted by the pulp novelist, and author of Conan the Barbarian, Robert E Howard, in his suicide note – except, wait – his note ran thus:


“All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre

The feast is over and the lamps expire”


Which are actually lines from the poem The House of Caesar by Viola Garvin, although Garvin would have been two years old when Dowson died, which suggests that she actually took the line from him (unless of course, they were similar by coincidence). I don’t know if that has been pointed out before (or is this an Unbound exclusive?!) but it seems appropriate that this page, all about the unreliable narratives and appropriation of ideas that make up the history of film, should include an appropriated line of poetry. And is it too much to point out that Dowson also seems to have been the first person (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) to use the word ‘socca’ (soccer)?

And as for The Evening News’ claim that a film had been ‘lately inspired’ by Cynara – which one? Read on to find the answer…..

Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind,
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.








My invention consists of a novel form of exhibition whereby the spectators have presented to their view scenes which are supposed to occur in the future or past, while they are given the sensation of voyaging on a machine through time, and means for presenting these scenes simultaneously and in conjunction with the production of the sensations by the mechanism described below, or its equivalent.


The mechanism I employ consists of a platform, or platforms, each of which contain a suitable number of spectators and which may be enclosed at the sides after the spectators have taken their places, leaving a convenient opening towards which the latter face, and which is directed towards a screen upon which the views are presented.


In order to create the impression of travelling, each platform may be suspended from cranks in shafts above the platform, which may be driven by an engine or other convenient source of power. These cranks may be so placed as to impart to the platform a gentle rocking motion, and may also be employed to cause the platform to travel bodily forward through a short space, when desired, or I may substitute for this portion of the mechanism similar shafts below the platforms, provided with cranks or cams, or worms keyed eccentrically on the shaft, or wheels gearing in racks attached to the underside of the platform or otherwise.


Simultaneously with the forward propulsion of the platform, I may arrange a current of air to be blown over it, either by fans attached to the sides of the platform, and intended to represent to the spectators the means of propulsion, or by a separate blower driven from the engine and arranged to throw a regulated blast over each of the platforms.


After the starting of the mechanism, and a suitable period having elapsed, representing, say, a certain number of centuries, during which the platforms may be in darkness, or in alternations of darkness and dim light, the mechanism may be slowed and a pause made at a given epoch, on which the scene upon the screen will come gradually into the view of the spectators, increasing in size and distinctness from a small vista, until the figures etc. may appear lifelike if desired.


In order to produce a realistic effect, I prefer to use for the projection of the scene upon the screen, a number of powerful lanterns, throwing the respective portions of the picture, which may be composed of,


(1) A hypothetical landscape, containing also the representations of the inanimate objects in the scene.

(2) A slide, or slides, which may be traversed horizontically or vertically and contain representations of objects such as a navigable balloon etc. which is required to traverse the scene.

(3) Slides or films, representing in successive instantaneous photographs, after the manner of the kinetoscope, the living persons or creatures in their natural motions. The films of slides are prepared with the aid of the kinetoscope or special camera, from made up characters performing on a stage, with or without a suitable background blending with the main landscape.

The mechanism may be similar to that used in the kinetoscope, but I prefer to arrange the film to travel intermittently instead of continuously and to cut off the light only during the rapid displacement of the film as one picture succeeds another, as by this means less light is wasted than in the case where the light is cut off for the greater proportion of the time, as in the ordinary kinetoscope mechanism.

(4) Changeable coloured, darkened or perforated slides may be used to produce the effect on the scene of sunlight, darkness, moonlight, rain etc.


In order to enable the scenes to be gradually enlarged to a definite amount, I may mount these lanterns on suitable carriages or trollies, upon rails provided with stops or marks, so as to approach to or recede from the screen a definite distance, and to enable a dissolving effect to be obtained, the lantern may be fitted with the usual mechanism. In order to increase the realistic effect I may arrange that after a certain number of scenes from a hypothetical future have been presented to the spectators, they may be allowed to step from the platforms, and be conducted through grounds or buildings arranged to represent exactly one of the epochs through which the spectator is supposed to be travelling.


After the last scene is presented I prefer to arrange that the spectators should be given the sensation of voyaging backwards from the last epoch to the present, or the present epoch may be supposed to have been accidentally passed, and a past scene represented on the machine coming to a standstill, after which the impression of travelling forward again to the present epoch may be given, and the re-arrival notified by the representation on the screen of the place at which the exhibition is held, or of some well-known building which by the movement forward of the lantern can be made to increase gradually in size as if approaching the spectator.”







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