World's First Color Films Are Discovered in English Museum

World's First Color Films Are Discovered in English Museum
Alfred Raymond Turner, Agnes May Turner, and Wilfred Sidney Turner, filmed in color by their father in 1901 or 1902
(Courtesy National Media Museum/SSPL)

Probably the oldest color films in existence have been discovered by the National Media Museum in Bradford, England. Believed to date from 1901-02, the rolls of test film depict a little girl and two boys in Edwardian dress playing with sunflowers as they sit behind a gleaming goldfish in a bowl, the girl on a swing, a brightly plumaged macaw, a panning shot from one of Brighton’s piers to the promenade, vehicles traveling on Knightsbridge to and from Hyde Park Corner, and marching soldiers.

The films were made by the cinematographer and inventor Edward Raymond Turner (1873-1903), the father of the three children, who had become a photographer at the age of 15 and had worked for the American color photography pioneer Frederick Eugene Ives. According to the museum’s website (the link shows the footage), Turner, of Hounslow, Middlesex, and his financial backer Frederick Marshal Lee patented Turner’s color movie process in 1899.

The museum’s site says that it was “a complicated process” involving photographing successive frames of black-and-white film through blue, green and red filters. Using a special projector…these were combined on a screen to produce full-color images,” the museum states.

After Turner’s premature death from a heart attack at the age of 29, the Anglo-American film producer, distributor, and documentary pioneer Charles Urban sponsored George Albert Smith to perfect the process. Because of the tendency of the images to blur, Smith concluded that it wasn’t functional. Working in Southwick, Sussex, near Brighton, Smith invented in 1906 a simpler two-color process that involved black and white film being projected behind alternating red and cyan filters. It was marketed by Urban as Kinemacolour from 1909 and became cinema's first commercially successful color process.

Turner’s test films were kept by Urban in his collection, which he donated to the London Science Museum in 1937 and, according to The Guardian’s Mark Brown, “the films were discovered when the collection was relocated from London to Bradford about three years ago. The museum’s curator of cinematography, Michael Harvey, recalls recognizing straight away that they were Lee and Turner films because they were 38mm with two perforations in the frames.

“With ‘a mixture of excitement and trepidation’ he then led the team on the complicated job of seeing whether the films could be reconstructed into color footage following the precise method that Lee and Turner had patented in 1899,” Brown reports. The museum link shows how Turner’s films were converted into digital files with the help from the British Film Institute’s National Archive.

“We believe this will literally rewrite film history,” said Paul Goodman, the museum’s head of collections. “I don’t think it is an overstatement. These are the world’s first color moving images.”

After 110 years in storage, Turner’s footage went on display at the National Media Museum today.