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British Industrial History

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Birt Acres

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1854 Birt Acres was born in Richmond, Virginia, USA, on 23 July. Both his parents were British.

Prior to the Civil War, (1861 to 1865), the family moved to North Carolina where they started a tobacco and cotton plantation.

c1864 When General Sherman began his march through the Carolinas, the family were caught up in the turmoil of the Civil War, so Birt was sent back to Richmond, where he stayed with a wealthy maiden aunt. His parents remained on the plantation to protect it, but they were both killed and their home was set alight and razed to the ground.

Birt's aunt adopted him and ensured that he continued with his education. She sent him to Paris to study art and science.

On his return, his friends teased him for living off his aunt's charity, so he purchased a horse and a gun and set off across the Dakotas to lead the life of a Frontiersman. There he traded with members of the Sioux tribe and learned two of their languages.

1880s Eventually he headed for Alaska and, by taking occasional work, in time he made enough money to travel to his parents' homeland.

Early 1890s he contributed articles on photographic chemistry and optics to the Photographic News Almanac.

1891 He was living in Hackney and was employed as a photographer. He joined the London and Provincial Photographic Association.

1892 Acres became manager of Elliott and Sons photographic works at Barnet, Hertfordshire.

1894 Experiment with 2¾ inch celluloid roll film, manufactured for Eastman's snapshot cameras. Arthur Melbourne Cooper, his assistant, later described how they used an experimental motion picture film camera to shoot sequences of the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in January 1894, and there is some evidence that Acres filmed the Henley regatta in July. But results on unperforated film were imperfect, and at that time no one had succeeded in motion picture film projection.

1895 Acres became a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

1895 Robert William Paul constructed a moving picture camera to Acres' design. A test film was shot outside Acres' house in Barnet. Acres made an agreement with Paul to supply films, and on 30 March 1895 filmed Britain's first news film. Acres patented the mechanism and soon after resigned from Elliotts

1896 Developed a projector for moving pictures. He opened a commercial cinema venue at 2 Piccadilly Mansions, London but it burnt down soon afterwards.

1896 He started the Northern Photographic Works at Barnet, but he sold the company the following year, retaining some shares.

1898 He patented a cinematograph system for amateurs — the eponymous Birtac.

1901 he founded the Whetstone Photographic Works

1906 Financially overstretched after commissioning a 42 foot yacht, his business failed later that year.

1909 He became bankrupt.

1918 Birt Acres died at the London Hospital, Whitechapel, on 27 December, when appendicitis turned to peritonitis. He was buried in Walthamstow cemetery.


Birt Acres was the inventor of the first British 35 mm moving picture camera and the first daylight loading home movie camera and projector, Birtac. He was the first travelling newsreel reporter in international film history and the first European film maker who had his films shown in the United States in public performances.

He was one of Britain's most important film pioneers, although for many years his accomplishments seemed to have been ignored and several of his successes have been credited to others.

He contributed a great deal to the introduction and development of cinematography in all its aspects, from the construction of cameras, projectors, film viewers, coating- and slitting machines and the manufacture of highly sensitized 35 mm raw film stock, to mobile newsreel reporting and the public projections of moving pictures.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  • [1] Birt Acres - Film Pioneer
  • [2] Oxford DNB