Sensitive Material Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Blackmail, and the First Motion Pictures

The story of early cinema may have been different had Wordsworth Donisthorpe been better at blackmail. Irfan Shah goes digging in the archives to recover the details of this forgotten polymath — political individualist, chess reformer, inventor of a peculiar kind of film camera — and finds a fierce debate about the history of English wool combing improbably implicated in the rise of motion pictures.

June 26, 2024

Photographic portrait of DonisthorpeScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Portrait of Wordsworth Donisthorpe by an unknown photographer, ca. 1900 — Source.

Mr. W. Donisthorpe is notorious for his eccentricities . . . and so frequently starts with a disadvantage in the Opening. He often recovers in the mid-game the ground lost in the début; but his forte is the end-game, and there he shows to advantage by a display of ingenuity, exact calculation, and above all great tenacity. One of his hobbies is to save a game by a stalemate . . .1The Chess-Monthly (November, 1886)

Nearly forgotten today, Wordsworth Donisthorpe accomplished many remarkable things in his life: he patented a moving picture camera, helped revive the British Chess Association, wrote prolifically on libertarian politics, and even invented a language. While he came close to immortalizing himself as the inventor of motion pictures, he became one of the first villains of motion pictures instead.

Born in Leeds in 1847, Donisthorpe studied at Leeds Grammar School before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he qualified as a barrister, although it appears he never actually practised as one. Instead, he considered managing a mill in Leicester owned by his father, George Edmund Donisthorpe, who was involved in the worsted-spinning industry, having invented mechanisms crucial to wool-combing machines. A dispute with a cousin appears to have ended this particular plan, and Wordsworth Donisthorpe turned to activities of a more political nature. With a different cousin, William Carr Crofts, he founded the short-lived Political Evolution Society in 1873, a movement dedicated to the laissez-faire policies of individualism, and in 1876, he published Principles of Plutology, a treatise on the science of wealth.

In that same year, Donisthorpe — an intellectually restless and ambitious man — obtained a provisional UK patent for the Kinesigraph, an apparatus designed to “facilitate the taking of a succession of photographs at equal intervals of time. . . . to give the eye a representation of the object in continuous movement”.2 In other words, a motion picture camera.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, photographic technology was improving rapidly. Advances in optics meant that the concept of moving pictures was much discussed, and explored through a range of devices, such as zoetropes and phenakistoscopes, which were already demonstrating the principles behind the animation of sequential images. Add to these technologies such delights as praxinoscopes, polyrama panoptiques, cycloramas, stereographic photographs, and others — and anything, it seemed, might be possible next. Continuous photographic motion pictures, therefore, felt simultaneously miraculous and inevitable.

Animation of rats running outward on a spinning diskScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

1833 phenakistiscope of running rats by Thomas Mann Baynes — Source.

The Kinesigraph patent described photosensitive glass plates, one behind the other, each moving subsequently forward toward the lens. As soon as the front plate was exposed, it dropped into a receptacle below, and the next plate approached the aperture. When printed as a strip of images and placed in a viewing device such as a zoetrope or phenakistoscope, this sequence could be reanimated with motion.

Provisional patents were not as comprehensive as full ones, rather, they served as a kind of general placeholder in case of later disputes. Donisthorpe’s patent consisted of six paragraphs of explanation but no diagram and no real description of how the plates would move, although he later wrote that they would be “pressed forward by a constant spring and struck down one after the other at a rate of eight per second by a mechanism worked by a revolving handle”.3 Donisthorpe’s imagination did not stop there. In a letter published in Nature on January 24, 1878, he envisioned the Kinesigraph being used in combination with Thomas Edison’s phonograph to create talking pictures, decades before talkies came on the scene.

Soon after this, there appears to have been a hiatus in Donisthorpe’s work on animated photography. His political activities, on the other hand, continued in earnest. Involvement in organisations such as the Liberty and Property Defence League led him to speak at venues across the country. He was remembered as “brilliant and witty, his lectures were a delight but there was always a vein of cynicism and extravagance in them which hindered their persuasiveness.”4 Donisthorpe also passed this interlude playing chess — and was rather good at it. He helped found the second incarnation of the British Chess Association in 1885 and the British Chess Club that same year. He would subsequently suggest a change in the rules, namely, the abolition of check. He argued that “the king should be treated like any other piece on the board” and that “‘check’ should not be called to him when he is attacked”.5

Painting of men in a chess club listening to a speechScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Anthony Rosenbaum, Chess Players, ca. 1874–80. Wordsworth Donisthorpe is pictured reading from a piece of paper at the bottom right — Source.

Around 1888, Donisthorpe returned to the idea of motion pictures. It may have been a coincidence, but at this time, Louis Le Prince, a French inventor who had married into a Leeds industrial family, started building his own motion picture camera in the town of Donisthorpe’s birth. Le Prince had already applied for a US patent on his design for a multi-lens motion picture camera in 1886. In 1888, the patent was finally published (as was a UK parallel), the details of which would therefore have been available in the public sphere, where Donisthorpe might have read them. Interestingly, in Donisthorpe’s 1876 provisional patent, he referred to his camera as a “receiver” and any viewing device as a “deliverer”, as did Le Prince in his patent. Was the Frenchman inspired by Donisthorpe’s 1876 design and Donisthorpe, in turn, spurred into action again by Le Prince’s advancements?6 Le Prince now had started to build a new, different camera with a single lens. It would be this machine that, in 1888, shot a series of motion pictures, considered by some to be the world’s first films.7

Was there some kind of secret rivalry between these two inventors, both with connections to Leeds, a kind of race to motion pictures? If so, then Donisthorpe was not that far behind Le Prince. And this time he had help from his cousin, William Carr Crofts. Together, they created the Donisthorpe-Crofts Kinesigraph — a very different design to the earlier 1876 patent, despite keeping the original name. Many of the mechanisms seem to have come as much from the world of wool combing and textiles as from the world of photography.8 For instance, a foot treadle turning a drive wheel powered everything inside the camera. And from there, the design only got odder.

Left: a film of people walking in a circle; right: a patent diagram of a wheel-like deviceScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Left: Roundhay Garden Scene (1888), a silent short shot by Louis Le Prince in Roundhay, Leeds. Right: the foot treadle mechanism for turning a drive wheel from Wordsworth Donisthorpe and William Carr Crofts’ 1891 US patent for the Donisthorpe-Crofts Kinesigraph — Source: left, right.

A film camera requires a few things to happen at once: a strip of light-sensitive material must pass behind the lens at great speed. If this film moves continuously, however, then the exposed images will blur, and so the strip needs to stop for an instant before winding to the next frame — an action often achieved by repeatedly trapping and clamping the film. This rapid “intermittent movement” must be synchronised with the shutter opening and closing. Donisthorpe and Crofts achieved a similar effect with a design that bore little resemblance to any photographic device made before or since. Inside the body of their camera was a film transport system mounted on a metal frame that slid up and down rapidly (several times per second). As the film strip wound from one reel to the next, the metal frame moved upward at the same speed as the film strip was moving downward. This counteractive motion meant that, for all intents and purposes, the film was stationary relative to the lens at the instant of exposure.

Sometime between the end of 1889 and 1891, having come across a new material called celluloid, Donisthorpe and Crofts shot a short film of Trafalgar Square. Getting the camera there would have been quite an ordeal — it measured twenty inches by twenty-three inches by ten inches, and had a solid iron base. The foot treadle shown in the patents had been replaced by a heavy hand wheel. Historian Stephen Herbert speculates that around a hundred frames may have been shot at a rate of approximately ten frames per second, of which ten frames survive, leaving us with only the briefest glimpse of a distant time. It was the first motion picture of London, the first of any capital city.

Nine circular frames showing a grainy vision of Trafalgar Square in LondonScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Nine surviving frames from Wordsworth Donisthorpe and William Carr Crofts’ 1890 Kinesigraph film of Trafalgar Square, London — Source.

Nine circular frames showing a grainy vision of Trafalgar Square in LondonScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

All ten surviving frames from Wordsworth Donisthorpe and William Carr Crofts’ 1890 Kinesigraph film of Trafalgar Square, London — Source.

In 1889, Donisthorpe and Crofts applied for a patent for their new camera under the title “Improvements in the production and representation of instantaneous photographic pictures”. The specification for the patent was completed in May, 1890, and accepted in November of that year. A US patent, “Method of Producing Instantaneous Photographs”, was published in 1891.

The patents also contained details about how the sequences would be played back. The inventors envisioned a projector throwing the back-lit images onto a screen. It was an ingenious device, although several serious technical issues would require more experimentation and research to solve. There were already problems with funding. Donisthorpe had previously turned to George Newnes, a successful publisher and vice president of the British Chess Club, who set up a committee of two so-called “experts” to advise him. Unfortunately for Donisthorpe, one of the experts was a painter and the other a maker of magic lanterns (an early slide projection device). Perhaps threatened by the idea of moving pictures, they condemned the idea as “wild, visionary and ridiculous and that the only result of attempting to photograph action would be an indescribable blur”.9 The funding was not forthcoming, the experiments faltered, and soon Thomas Edison (and several other inventors) overtook Donisthorpe. When William Carr Crofts died in 1894, Donisthorpe’s dream of motion pictures seemed to have died with him.

Patent diagram of early film cameraScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Drawings from “Method of Producing Instantaneous Photographs”, Wordsworth Donisthorpe and William Carr Crofts’ 1891 US patent for the Donisthorpe-Crofts Kinesigraph — Source.

Nevertheless, the indefatigable Donisthorpe remained active as a political thinker, chess player, and writer. In 1897, he was part of a leisurely expedition around the Mediterranean in a steam-powered yacht. He wrote about this journey in Down the Stream of Civilization (1898), a book that was forgotten almost as soon as it appeared, although it does contain a paragraph about memory that serves as a poignant reflection on the inability of recorded images and sound to truly replace the reality of experience.

Being unable to retrace our steps in Time, we decided to move forward in Space. Shall we never be able to glide back up the stream of Time, and peep into the old home, and gaze on the old faces? Perhaps when the phonograph and the kinesigraph are perfected, and some future worker has solved the problem of colour-photography, our descendants will be able to deceive themselves into something very like it: but it will be but a barren husk: a soulless phantasm and nothing more.10

His last book, Uropa (1913), was nothing less than an attempt to create a new system of speech and writing. The system used Latin roots to construct a “philosophic” language, explaining its curious grammar and principles (passive verb forms and objects receive a -ym- affix, for example) across twenty-eight chapters. In place of the expected phrases of language learning, we find translations of idiosyncratic sentences such as “Charles has given me a refrigerator” — rendered as Karla avyrie ma glacyrusam — as well as “I hate purple walls” and “The rabbit which has fallen from the rock was dead”. The book was an unwieldy contribution to the field and fared little better than Down the Stream of Civilization. And so, despite his best efforts, Donisthorpe seems to have been a man in the margins of things — a would-be political leader, a good but not great chess player, and an inventor not quite able to finish his invention.

It should be noted at this point that Wordsworth Donisthorpe was also a blackmailer.


In October, 1888, Bradford industrialist Samuel Cunliffe Lister received an odd request from Wordsworth Donisthorpe. “I am going to ask you to give me £10,000”.11 To understand the connection between Wordsworth Donisthorpe and Samuel Lister, we must return to Wordsworth’s father, George Edmund, and the history of wool combing in England in the nineteenth century, which was dominated by the inventions of four men: Samuel Cunliffe Lister, Isaac Holden, James Noble, and George Edmund Donisthorpe. The process of combing is a vital part of the manufacture of worsted yarn. As the raw wool is combed, the short “noil” fibres are separated from the longer “top” fibres. The longer fibres are combined in a parallel arrangement that is treated and spun into worsted yarn, which is stronger and softer than plain wool.

As early as the 1830s, inventors such as Noble and Donisthorpe were patenting small improvements to existing machines. Donisthorpe’s work caught the attention of Lister; the two men began working together. In 1845, Lister patented a design that was essentially a modification of Donisthorpe’s existing work. In 1846, Lister and Holden worked together to solve the defects in the design and came up with the square motion comb. Additionally, Noble and Donisthorpe collaborated on improvements to the Noble comb. On top of that, Donisthorpe invented another process that became known as the nip comb, which Lister bought and patented under his own name. Whose name went on what patent was often a financial or political arrangement as much as an indication of the actual inventor. It remains very difficult to know exactly who did what on all of these mechanisms. However, Wordsworth Donisthorpe obviously felt that his father had done enough on Lister’s machines to warrant asking for £10,000 to further his motion picture efforts.

Two painted portraits of inventorsScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Left: Isaac F. Bird’s portrait of George Edmund Donisthorpe, ca. mid-19th century. Right: John Collier’s portrait of Samuel Cunliffe Lister, 1901, picturing the inventor with a scaled model of one of his patented machines — Source: left, right.

Donisthorpe did not press his point unduly at first. He reassured Lister: “I know that I have no claim upon you of any kind.”12 A strange gambit, though reminiscent of Donisthorpe’s chess strategy in the epigraph above: “[He] frequently starts with a disadvantage in the Opening.” Lister and Donisthorpe corresponded about who had contributed what to the patented mechanisms, and the discussion quickly escalated into an argument waged in newspapers. Among a stream of vicious pedantry were some choice insults:

“Foiled in your own vile purpose” (Donisthorpe to Lister)13
“You were doing your best to backbite me” (Lister to Donisthorpe)14
“[Lister] is regarded as a sort of comic old man of the mountain, ready to stab anybody in the back” (Donisthorpe)15

At one point, the editor of the Bradford Telegraph had enough: “This correspondence must now cease”, he wrote, but instead, it spilled onto the pages of more papers, creating an ill-humoured and, in places, accidental deconstruction of the history of the textile industry. Lister, for example, claimed that in 1848, the square comb was “invented and patented by me, and laughed at by Mr. Donisthorpe”.16 Wordsworth objected and insisted that the square motion had been invented by his father in 1844, and that he had also improved the Noble patent and invented the nip comb. Lister was appalled by this. “I can rend in pieces the robe of friendship, and show that it covered little more than a skeleton”, he wrote.17 Suggesting that Donisthorpe’s work on the nip comb was merely an improvement on a French patent by Josué Heilman, Lister makes reference to Newton’s phrase about standing on the shoulders of giants: “So Donisthorpe, the dwarf, saw further than Heilman the giant. Not much credit in that, is there?”18 He goes on to claim that Donisthorpe’s work on the Lister patent was simply a modification of an existing patent by Edward Cartwright. The public accusations continued until, in the midst of an apparent stalemate, Wordsworth Donisthorpe announced that the correspondence was at a close, although he added in a private letter: “I am a ‘great document and letter keeper’. I shall make use of my collection.”19

What might Donisthorpe have meant? His father, for example, had once written a “Black Letter” to Lister accusing him of being “a liar, thief, and a rogue”.20 Fellow industrialist and inventor of wool-combing mechanisms Isaac Holden had a similar view of Lister, as evidenced by a series of letters published in the Bradford Observer and reprinted by Holden in a circa 1897 pamphlet. In a private letter to Lister, Donisthorpe claimed he had access to more, presumably incriminating, documents from his father’s time.

Photo collage of the Donisthorpe familyScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Joshua Taylor Wordsworth, Love in a Cottage, ca. 1874, a photo collage of Wordsworth Donisthorpe and his first wife, Ann Maria, with their child, Anderson. Judging by the date on the lintel, this illustration was created the year before Wordsworth Donisthorpe’s father, George Edmund, passed away — Source.

A few years later, in 1892, Donisthorpe resumed the correspondence. The letters in his possession from Lister contained all kinds of indiscretions. There were unseemly boasts and insults about colleagues — as well as the occasional indirect admission of dubious business practices. For example, Lister effectively admitted to taking out a patent in someone else’s name to dodge contractual obligations. Scouring through correspondence both private and public, Donisthorpe may well have found more material with which to hurt Lister. In the meantime, Lister had set about belittling the work of George Edmund Donisthorpe, and while the convoluted string of claims and counterclaims in the newspapers becomes increasingly difficult to follow, one thing is certain: neither party looked good.

“One of his hobbies is to save a game by a stalemate”, wrote The Chess-Monthly about Donisthorpe in 1886. Is this what he was doing? Accumulating details of dubious business practices by Lister until the £10,000 became the price to pay to avoid further reputational damage? Were the contents of the Black Letter about to be unleashed? “I did not wish to remind you”, wrote Donisthorpe, “of transactions which I thought you might perhaps wish to forget, or at least wish others to forget.”21 For better or worse, this veiled threat was never acted upon. What happened next appears to have been the old story of money, power, and possible influence over the press, because by this time, Lister had been made a Peer of the Realm, 1st Baron Masham. His influence had only grown since Donisthorpe’s first request for money. A letter found in the North Yorkshire Archives might hold a clue to Lister’s endgame. On June 29, 1898, the Mayor of Bradford, writing to Lister regarding the feud, begins his letter with: “I thank you for the gift of cigars which I think are first rate.”22 The next letter in the archive, from Jasper Patterson, General Manager of the Bradford Daily Argus, provides a further hint: “My Lord – Donisthorpe may be considered snuffed out now.”23

It appears that the press — perhaps with pressure applied, and admittedly frustrated by both parties — ceased giving the feud a platform in their newspapers, which effectively quashed Donisthorpe’s increasingly desperate attacks. Donisthorpe, perhaps armed with his father’s Black Letter, may have been planning a final series of revelations. He may have thought he had one more move to play. The irony is that no one told him: “check”.


In the pursuit of money for his experiments, Wordsworth Donisthorpe shredded his reputation. How close he might have come to creating a working projector, we will never know. Brian Coe, one of the great historians on motion picture mechanisms, writes: “It is unfortunate that Donisthorpe could not develop his device further at the time, since of the several experimenters in the field, he was perhaps the nearest to success.”24

But what if we could travel up the stream of time and deconstruct the Kinesigraph? Would we find the mechanisms behind it — the treadle and drive wheel and the square motion combs — in the mills of Leeds, Halifax, and Bradford? And find, too, that behind the inventors who oversaw the development of these machines were many more who sold their work, had it stolen, or were simply forgotten? Would we see all those who did the practical labor, and the resources on which they drew — not just material but intellectual — such as the mechanics’ institutes that disseminated knowledge of the latest ideas and techniques throughout the towns and cities of Northern England? Perhaps then we would find that the arch individualist, Wordsworth Donisthorpe, had relied on the wider industrial and intellectual community for much of his work. Perhaps it took a city to create the Kinesigraph.

And after all this, we are left with another question — would the story of film have been different had Donisthorpe been better at blackmail?

As a postscript: there is a final connection between Donisthorpe and the world of film, and it has to do with one of Donisthorpe’s successes: he served as the first president of the Legitimation League, an organisation formed to protect the rights of illegitimate children and those in relationships out of wedlock. In 1895, under his presidency, it was instrumental in securing the release from an asylum of Edith Lanchester, who had been kidnapped by her own family and declared insane for refusing to marry the man with whom she was living. Seven years later, Edith gave birth to a daughter, Elsa, who would go on to be an actress, and play the part of the bride in the classic horror film Bride of Frankenstein (1935). That there are two degrees of separation between one of the pioneers of film and one of its most iconic characters seems an appropriately colourful twist to the story of Wordsworth Donisthorpe.

Irfan Shah is a writer and researcher specialising in pre-cinema media archaeology. He is an Associate of Leeds Beckett University where he helped establish the Stephen Herbert Archive of motion picture research, and has written documentaries and articles on different aspects of early film.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.