Life and times of Auguste Lumière

PUBLISHED: 16:17 08 October 2012

Lumière brothers © Collection Institut Lumière

Lumière brothers © Collection Institut Lumière

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Born 150 years ago, AUGUSTE LUMIÈRE played a pivotal role with his brother in the history of cinema. Zoë McIntyre sheds light on their achievements

Auguste Lumière was born in Besançon on 19 October 1862, and was followed by his brother Louis two years later. In 1870, the family moved to Lyon, where the brothers’ father Claude-Antoine opened a photographic studio. Auguste trained in engineering at La Martinière, the city’s large technical school, and by 1882 both he and Louis were working at the studio. Louis had invented a dry plate process called l’étiquette bleue that was used in portrait photography and as demand soared, the brothers launched a factory in the quartier of Monplaisir that employed about 300 workers.

The pivotal year came in 1894 when Claude-Antoine saw a display of Thomas Edison’s peephole Kinetoscope in Paris and encouraged Louis and Auguste to improve on the American inventor’s device. They came up with a much smaller concept that was able to project a moving image on to a screen so it could be seen by more than one viewer at a time, which opened huge commercial possibilities.

The following February, Louis and Auguste patented the Cinématographe; from the Greek words for ‘motion’ and ‘record/write’. Their first film, La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière, showing workers leaving the factory, was screened in private to scientists and enthusiasts on 8 December 1895. It was among films shown at the world’s first screening before a paying audience, at the Grand Café in Paris later that month. The films, none more than a minute long, captivated and bewildered audiences; they are said to have jumped and ducked when a locomotive was filmed moving towards the camera in L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat. The screenings caught the public imagination and, hesitant to sell their Cinématographe, the brothers opened theatres to project their footage. Soon to be known as ‘cinemas’, within a year these auditoriums were in cities around the world. Auguste is reported to have declared that his brother invented cinema overnight, a remark that led some to mistakenly credit Louis with the discovery of moving film. In fact, the comment referred to Louis’s insomnia; during one sleepless night he worked out how to solve technical problems with the device.

Despite the phenomenal success, neither Auguste nor Louis seemed to grasp the true potential of film. Auguste was quoted as saying: “My invention can be exploited… as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever.”

Both brothers soon turned their attention to other ventures, with Louis concentrating on colour photography processes and Auguste applying himself to medical innovations. He became an expert in X-ray technology and was one of the first to X-ray a fractured bone. During World War I, he paid for all the patients in a Lyon hospital to be X-rayed. He also invented a catalytic heater for warplanes, enabling engines to start in freezing temperatures.

Auguste’s devotion to innovation continued throughout his long life. He died in Lyon on 10 April 1954, aged 91. Although they did not invent motion pictures, Auguste and his brother can be credited with turning films into a mass entertainment medium, so ushering in the cinema industry we know today.

FACTFILE

- The Lumières have been honoured on many stamps and medallions.However, plans to feature them on 100-franc notes in 1995 were shelved because of their alleged links with the Vichy regime during World War II. Artist Paul Cézanne was picked instead.

- Auguste and his wife Marguerite feature in an early film feeding their baby daughter Andrée.

- The Cinématographe was a small, square wooden box, weighing less than 9kg, and was hand-cranked rather than powered by electricity, making it more versatile and reliable. It was a camera, projector and printer all in one, and ran 16 frames of film per second.

- The site of the brothers’ factory in Lyon is now home to the Institut Lumière which includes a museum, cinema and library. www.institut-lumiere.org

- The fourth Festival Lumière, celebrating cinema in all its forms, will take place in Lyon from 15-21 October. www.festival-lumiere.org

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