Father of cinematography Bull as quick as a fly
17 April 2018
A stereoscopic spark drum camera
Lucian Bull was born in 1876 to a French mother, Gabrielle Joune, and his father, Cornelius, who was a merchant/carpenter. He was educated in Dublin; in 1894, at the age of 18, he went to live with his aunts in France with the intention of becoming a photographer.
His photographic talent was noticed by a physiology researcher called Étienne-Jules Marey and soon he was employed as his assistant. Physiology is the study of how the body works and Marey was one of the most eminent physiologists whose research also branched into the areas of cardiology, aviation, cinematography and photography.
In 1896, he would establish the Marey Institute in the Collège de France, which was devoted to the standardisation and checking of physiological instruments. It was a classic genius-protégé relationship and Bull was an enthusiastic student to his mentor, Marey.
Field of research known as chronophotography
At the time, Marey’s major project was attempting to capture human motion on film in order to analyse movement patterns and he was developing a camera capable of this. This field of research was called chronophotography and his rudimentary camera would become a forerunner of the modern film camera.
The self-evidently named ‘gun camera’, captured motion by utilising a rotating plate that captured up to 12 frames per second giving a ‘flicker book’ effect when the film was played as each frame had to stop to be exposed.
Lucian’s duties included developing and printing the negatives and on occasion even being a model for the camera being filmed as he jumped an athletics hurdle.
This project took several years and Bull would continue the research after Marey’s death in 1904. Utilising carpentry skills he had learnt from his father, Lucian designed and built a high-speed camera known as a stereoscopic spark drum camera.
Continuous moving film that captured speeding projectiles
It no longer flickered but instead gave a continuous moving film that captured speeding projectiles such as a bullet piercing a soap bubble and of a fly in flight at 1,200 frames per second.
It was so fast, it was able to record the individual wing beats of the fly. In 1918, his camera was able to record at 50,000 frames per second, in 1924, 100,000, and in 1952, a million.
After a 10-year apprenticeship under Marey, the 28-year-old Bull stepped into his beloved ‘maître’s’ shoes continuing his research and becoming director of the Marey Institute.
Similarly, to his mentor, Bull began to write prolifically and published numerous academic papers on a wide variety of subjects ranging from the aforementioned high-speed photography and cinematography, spark illuminations, studies of insect and bird flight, muscle and heart functions and electrocardiography.
Another element of Marey’s research that Lucian continued was into how the heart functioned. In 1876 Marey had successfully recorded the electrical impulses of the exposed heart of a frog.
Other scientists and engineers then built on this research and developed the electrocardiogram (ECG) but they were impractical for hospital use. In turn, Lucian built on their research and in 1908 patented an improved version that was viable for use.
Systems for high-speed photographic analyses of ballistics
When the First World War broke out, Lucian joined the war effort developing systems for the high-speed photographic analyses of ballistics and for locating enemy gun batteries via a sound ranging device. These were highly effective and enhanced his already significant reputation, and governmental appointments followed.
This ‘tiny, bird-like, lovable figure, with an irrepressible sense of humour, and an ability to bring pleasure to those around him’ would continue his research well into the 50s and have a profound influence on many branches of science and engineering.
He died on August 25, 1971, in his Paris flat, aged 95. Among the honours he had received were the Legion of Honour, the Order of Merit, an Academy of Sciences Laureate, several gold medals for scientific research from French institutions and an OBE from the British government.
Author: Kenneth Mitchell is a chartered engineer in the fields of chemical and environmental engineering