Friday, November 14, 2014

Cut... and print! An Episcopal priest invents film in Newark

Newark has attracted more than its share of creative thinkers who've made huge contributions to their professions and industries. As we learned earlier this year, scientist James Jay Mapes revolutionized agriculture through experiments on his farm in the current-day South Ward. The prolific Seth Boyden had his own lab in Newark to develop new methods of producing patent leather and malleable iron. And, of course, New Jersey's most prolific inventor, Thomas Edison, set up shop in the city before moving operations to the more rural Menlo Park.

Rev. Hannibal Goodwin
A less likely Newark inventor came to mind on my recent stop at the Plume House, now more familiar to Newarkers as the rectory of the Episcopal House of Prayer. Reverend Hannibal Goodwin lived in the home during his service as the church's rector from 1867 until his retirement in 1887. No doubt he served the congregation well, but he's better known for his work outside the ministry.

Like many inventors, Goodwin was driven by a problem in need of a solution. Wanting to make Bible lessons more interesting to his congregants, he started using images printed on glass plates, projected through a stereopticon or "magic lantern." The plates were subject to cracking and breakage, leading him to seek out another transparent material that would be more flexible and immune to damage. Rev. Goodwin took to the workshop and lab he'd assembled in the attic of the Plume House, looking for a solution. He wasn't a chemist by training but taught himself sufficiently to work on a solution without blowing the roof off the rectory.

Newark was already becoming a center for the development of plastics, but apparently none with the properties Goodwin sought. Celluloid pioneer John Wesley Hyatt had relocated to Ferry Street in Newark in the 1870s to manufacture false teeth, billiards balls and other durable solids, but apparently hadn't seen the potential for photographic use. Amateur photographer Rev. Goodwin did. After some experimentation, he developed cellulose nitrate photographic film, also known as flexible celluloid film.

House of Prayer: birthplace of flexible film.
Courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey
Goodwin quickly realized that he hadn't just solved the problem of cracked Bible illustrations, he'd also opened the door to a new trend in photography. Upon his retirement from the Episcopal church in 1887, he filed a patent application for a "photographic pellicle and process for producing same," noting that the invention was for a "transparent sensitive pellicle [membrane] better adapted for photographic purposes."

Though he was first to the U.S. Patent Office with the concept, Goodwin's application wasn't immediately accepted. His lack of formal training as a chemist showed in the lack of detail and need for further clarification and amendments. Meanwhile, others, including George Eastman, came forth with more nuanced and complete petitions for patent. By the time Goodwin was awarded the patent in 1898, Eastman Kodak had been manufacturing and selling flexible film using its own processes for several years.

Goodwin unfortunately lost the opportunity to make up for lost time. Patent in hand, he incorporated the Goodwin Film and Camera Company in 1900 but died in a street accident before production started. His wife sold the company to Anthony and Scovill (later known as Ansco) which sued Eastman Kodak for patent infringement. After more than a decade of dispute in the courts, Goodwin's rightful place as inventor of flexible film was confirmed.

Consider that within the radius of just a few miles, New Jersey holds three locations crucial to the birth and growth of the film industry: the attic of a small Dutch colonial house in Newark where the film itself was born, Edison's West Orange lab where the motion picture was invented, and Fort Lee where the studio system grew from infancy to a major industry. Rochester, Hollywood, eat our dust!

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