Kazimierz Prószyński – Edison of the Tenth Muse
portrait, Kazimierz Prószyński, photo: Andrzej Zbraniecki/East News, center, kazimierz_proszynski_fot_andrzej_zbraniecki_en_01291655_0006.jpg
An inventor, director and filmmaker. Hailed as 'the third Lumière brother' and 'the Columbus of cinematography'. He created the first hand-held camera and the first audiobooks. He introduced video projections to theatre productions and came up with the idea of television back in the 19th century.
Prószyński is born in Warsaw and spends his youth here. His mother passes away when he’s only nine years old. Since then, Kazimierz is raised by his father Konrad, education activist and the publisher of Gazeta Świąteczna (The Holiday Gazette).
He picks up the photography bug from his grandfather. As a teenager, Prószyński becomes a member of the Warsaw Photographic Society. After visiting an exhibition of Ottomar Anschütz’s ‘living photographs’, pictures presenting different phases of movement, Kazimierz begins to dream of the cinema.
After Prószyński graduates from the gymnasium, he leaves for Belgium. He begins his studies at the Polytechnic Institute of Liège. Here, a new dream hatches: Prószyński wants to build his own cinematographic machine.
After a while, he quits university and moves back to Warsaw. In 1894, he invents the pleograph. The new device can record movement and project it on the screen. However, Prószyński’s invention doesn’t attract much attention, and a year later, the Lumière brothers present their cinematograph to the world. They become known as the fathers of cinematography, and Prószyński’s pleograph remains unknown. The Pole loses the race, but refuses to give up.
The flickering problem
While others record their films at either 16 or 25 frames per second, Prószyński’s technology can register up to 50 frames per second. Such speed makes it possible to partially eliminate the problems with perceived flicker.
A partial solution, however, is not enough for Prószyński. In 1898 he invents the biopleograph, replacing a single lens with two, and recording the image to two camera rolls. During the projection, two lenses cast light on the screen alternately. The flicker becomes less and less persistent.
In 1909, Prószyński finally reaches an end of his struggle with the flickering of recorded images. He patents his latest invention: an obturator is a three-blade shutter that breaks the stream of light 40 times per second, allowing projection of films without perceived flicker. The French Academy of Sciences gives the invention the highest praise, and the French tycoon Gaumont starts implementing the device on a large scale.
A decade of inventions
Prószyński’s Towarzystwo Udziałowe Pleograf (Pleograph Company) is the first Polish film production company, established in 1901. He produces several short films there, including Ślizgawka w Łazienkach (Ice Rink in Łazienki), Powrót Birbanta (The Return of the Merry Fellow), Ulica Franciszkańska (Franciszkańska Street), and Przygoda dorożkarza (The Cabby’s Adventure). The first projections take place in the Summer Theatre of the Saski Garden in the spring of 1902.
A year later, Prószyński’s pleograph becomes the vehicle of the theatre revolution. During a performance of Wagner’s opera The Valkyrie at the Wielki Theatre in Warsaw, a pleograph is used to project the first video projections in the country.
In 1903, the Pleograph Company files for bankruptcy, and Prószyński’s financial problems mean he can no longer work on any new inventions. The first victim of the company’s fall is the telefot, a device that can transmit the recorded image as an early version of today’s television. The other is the kinofon, which synchronises the film image with sound played from a gramophone: a harbinger of the sound film era. None of those inventions will ever be mass-produced.
A living camera
On 27th December 1901, Prószyński presents the first hand-held film camera in the history of cinematography. His aeroscope is very light and equipped with a gyroscope that reduces shaking. On top of that, the device is powered by compressed air, so it no longer requires the cameraman to turn the crank to keep filming.
The invention of the aeroscope turns out to be a breakthrough. It allows recording the first documentaries in history. Using this device, Prószyński films the coronation ceremony of King George V in Britain in 1911. In the same year, mass production of the aeroscope is launched in Great Britain, and in 1913 the device earns Prószyński a gold medal at the International Cinematograph Exhibition in London.
During World War I, the aeroscope makes it possible to film war chronicles, and after the war, the device is keenly used for aerial photography. Prószyński’s cameras are in use until the mid-30s, when sound film becomes popular.
Small is… expensive
In 1914, Prószyński marries Dorothy Abrey. Soon, the couple welcomes their two children to the world: Kazimierz Junior and Irena. The family moves to the USA, where Prószyński works on his new invention: a camera he calls Oko (Polish for ‘an eye’), the great-grandfather of today’s GoPro cameras.
A box the size of an A4 sheet and just 4 inches wide is enough for Prószyński to fit a system that can record films onto a tiny film tape. The light and portable device can do more than just record films: equipped with a special 450W bulb, the camera also doubles as a film projector.
In 1923, after Prószyński’s return to Poland, mass production of the Oko camera takes off, but the device never enjoys commercial success. Only 100 camera-projectors are released on the market, and not a single one gets sold.
World War II finds the inventor in Warsaw. Prószyński is working on his new ideas. One of them is the autolektor, the precursor to the modern audiobook. The device can record books on the old film tapes for the blind to listen to. Prószyński patents his invention in 1943, but it never becomes popular.
In August 1944, the Warsaw Uprising begins. Prószyński, his wife and daughter are arrested by the Germans. He is taken to the camp in Pruszków, and then to Gross-Rosen and Mauthausen concentration camps. He dies on 13th March 1945.
Translated by Agata Zano