Electrical Wonders


The Electrical Schnellesher (from www.victorian-cinema.net)

Source: ‘Electrical Wonders’, The Daily News (London), 20 December 1892, p. 2

Text: Between five and six years ago Herr Anschütz, the scientific photographer of Berlin, showed the Crown Prince a certain picture of figures in motion. Besides the Crown Prince, there were present the King of Saxony and one or two German princes. What the Crown Prince saw, or thought he saw, was a drawing – painting – or photograph, the subject of which, instead of being in an overlastingly fixed attitude, was in active bodily motion. A spectator without an inkling of a knowledge of optics or photography or any science whatever would have been as much surprised at Herr Anschütz’s picture as he would have been at Mr. Gladstone’s in the National Liberal Club – supposing he had seen the latter raise its hand as if in the act of speaking, turn its head sharply, as if in rebuke of somebody, then sit down, cross its legs, lean forward, and turn its palm into an ear trumpet, in the attitude of listening to the next orator. ‘Herr Anschütz’, said the Crown Prince, “it is well for you that you were not born three centuries ago, for you would have been taken up as a sorcerer and burnt.’ And yet the whole thing is as plain as A B C. It was this same Herr Anschütz who some time ago took a photograph of a cannon ball at each of three separate points in its swift invisible flight. Herr Anschütz’s ‘Electrical Wonder’ has just been sent from Berlin to No. 425, Strand. Twelve pictures are ready. Eighteen or twenty more will be ready in a short time. It is the intention of the Wonder Company to take pictures of ‘local objects’. Science, rank, and fashion were pretty well represented at the opening day, yesterday, between the hours of eleven and three.

A picture in the Anschütz collection is one and indivisible only in the spectator’s consciousness. It is the resultant of twenty-five separate pictures, each of which differs slightly in attitude, &c., from its predecessor. If all the twenty-five pictures are passed before the eye, say in three-quarters of a second, none of them leaves a conscious impression of itself upon the observer’s mind. Each picture has only the thirtieth part of a second to do it in; in unscientific phraseology, the pace is to fast for the response of consciousness. What does happen in the short space of three-quarters of a second is the merging of the twenty-five separate pictures into one picture – a picture in which the person, or animal, or group is seen in motion. The idea has been familiarised on the much humbler scale of the toymaker in what is commonly called the zoetrope, or wheel of life. In its more scientific aspect it has been used in the thaumatrope and the phenakistoscope, which depend for their effect on the persistence of vision. Let us take, for an example, the picture of the huntsman leaping a brook. Twenty-five pictures were taken when the horse was in the act, and they were taken in less than a second. The first picture suppose showed the horse when about to spring, the second when the hind feet were leaving the ground, the thirteenth when the horse had just turned the point of its highest distance, and so on by minute gradations, until the twenty-fifth and last picture, when the horse was again on terra firma. Between one pictorial attitude and the next there intervened less than the twenty-fifth part of a second. The interval was too short for the eye to individualise any one attitude. If, then, these twenty-five separate pictures were arranged, consecutively, say on a revolving disc, and flashed one after the other upon the spectator’s eye within the second of time, the result would be a single picture – single image – of the entire act of leaping across a brook. That is what happens with the aid of the electric spark in each of the peep-show like boxes in 425 Strand.

You are looking at what might be an illustrated page in a book, but the action in this magical illustration is a continuous one. The effect is no less beautiful than wonderful. On the bluish page, as it seems to be, a page which might be fitted into an octavo volume, the picture develops itself from beginning to end. The sand is thrown up by the horse’s heels and falls down again. The horse’s tail and mane wave. His bitted mouth opens. Even his muscular contractions are visible; and the straining of the neck, the distension of the eager nostrils, the drawing up, bending and outstretching of the limbs. The huntsman’s coat-tails flap. Woodcuts and coloured plates in the books used by mortal men do bot behave in that singular fashion. But in No. 425, Strand, we are in the miracle shop of Herr Anschütz, the natural-supernaturalist. ‘I see a picture of life-in-movement’ says Consciousness. ‘It is all maya-illusion’, says Science, ‘the reality, the twenty-five pictures, you do not see; what you do see is a phantom born of them.’ And so with the octavo-sized picture of two girls dancing. If a Graphic artist draws two girls dancing in Drury Lane, he fixed them at a particular moment, in a particular attitude for ever and ever. But in Herr Anschütz’s picture, the girls trip on their light fantastic toes, they wave their arms, their dresses flutter into everchanging folds. The picture is, let us call it, the composite ghost of 25 real pictures each representing an attitude, or fraction of an attitude, in the total movement; and all electrically flashed in succession before the eye in about a second of time. And so again, with the picture of the boys at drill; of the lady riding at a slow, easy trot; of the athletes vaulting and flying head over heels; of the ‘professor’ making his dog take a six foot jump over a cane; of the boxing match; of the squad of Uhlans. It is as if the engravings on our octavo pages become alive and move like their prototypes in the flesh. The boys march in the stiff-legged Prussian fashion. The mounted lady trots most gracefully. Her horse is a fine stepper. The fellows in the Row would be sure to stare at her through their eyeglasses. In their octavo picture the athletes bound off their spring boards, and turn head over heels, as nicely as any young men do in any London gymnasium.

Perhaps the most amusing picture is that of the two boxers. You can watch the play of their bicepital muscles, heels, toes, legs, while they do their best to let each other’s ‘claret’ out. But the prettiest picture of all is the Uhlan squad — a wonderful little picture of the confused, twinkling swing of horse’s legs, the waving of manes and tails, the flutter of the pennons on the gently swaying lances, the steady, alert figures of the riders. In or about a second’s time 25 successive pictures were taken of a Uhlan squad in motion, each picture representing the attitudes of the whole during a particular fraction of a second. By flashing in equally rapid succession the twenty-five pictures before the observer’s eye, the image of the original squad is created. In size, as in other respects, the Anschütz is an astonishing apparatus. It contains twenty-five lenses. Four men on horseback may easily find room inside it. ‘What did this astonishing camera cost the Herr Anschütz?’ we asked. ‘£30,000.’

Comments: Ottomar Anschütz (1846-1907) was a German photographer whose various devices with sequential images on a cylinder or disc that showed fleeting motion sequences anticipated cinema. His coin-operated Electrical Schnellesher, or Electrical Wonder (which showed (24, not 25, images shown in a second), was exhibited in London from 19 December 1892. My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this article to my attention.