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Archives biographies: Robert William Paul 1869-1943

In the late nineteenth century, the burgeoning electrical industry encouraged the proliferation of small instrument making firms, often backed by outstanding electrical engineers such as Lord Kelvin, Muirhead and Latimer Clark, names which are remembered today. One less-known name was that of Robert William Paul who was educated at Finsbury Technical College under Professor William Ayrton and Professor Perry.  

After working for Elliott Brothers, Lewisham, and the Bell Telephone Company in Antwerp, he started his own instrument-making business in Hatton Garden, London, in 1891.

He maintained his links with Finsbury and manufactured instruments devised by Ayrton, Perry, and Mather.  The success of these instruments owed much to Paul's skill in design and his meticulous craftsmanship. Paul also invented instruments himself, as for example, his "unipivot" galvanometer which he devised in 1903.  

Unipivot instruments

Based on Jacques Arsène D'Arsonval's moving coil galvanometer, manufactured on a large scale by the Weston Electrical Instrument Company of Newark, New Jersey, Paul devised an instrument in which the moving parts were supported on a single bearing giving lower friction and therefore greater sensitivity.  Other unipivot instruments followed.  His instruments gained international recognition, winning gold medals at the 1904 St Louis Exposition and the 1910 Brussels Exhibition.

Kinetoscopes and Paul's Theatrograph

Paul did not confine his interests solely to the manufacture of electrical instruments.  In 1894 two Greek showmen asked Paul to manufacture six Edison and Dickson Kinetoscopes in London.  Since Edison had not patented the device in England, Paul manufactured not just six Kinetoscopes, but 60, and improved the design.  

Not unexpectedly, the American inventors would not supply film for his machines, so in 1896 he began to make his own films, and to show them he devised a projector, the "Theatrograph" with a Maltese cross arrangement to advance the film mechanically frame by frame.  

He filmed the Prince of Wales's horse, Persimmon, winning the 1896 Derby, and the following evening showed the film at the Alhambra, Leicester Square, to an ecstatic audience which stood on the seats singing "God Bless the Prince of Wales" while calling for two repeat showings of the film.  


Having become fascinated by the cinema, Paul began to make short "playlet" films, which were so successful that in 1897 he bought land in Muswell Hill for a professional film studio. Also in 1897, he married the leading lady of his first film "The Soldier's Courtship".

By the early 1900s, Paul decided to devote all his energy to his instrument making business that had continued to flourish. In 1902 he commissioned a purpose-built factory in Muswell Hill.

Medical instruments

In November 1919, his business was bought by the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company, which was renamed "The Cambridge and Paul Instrument Company." In the early 1930s with Sir William Bragg he devised the "Bragg-Paul Pulsator", a precursor of the iron lung, first used to assist the breathing of a friend of Bragg's who suffered from severe muscular atrophy. Later the device was used in several hospitals. Paul remained with the Cambridge and Paul Instrument Company until his death in 1943.