William Edward Green was born on 7th September 1855 in Bristol. He was educated there at Queen Elizabeth's Hospital. In 1869 he became an apprentice to a photographer named Maurice Guttenberg. By 1875 he had set up his own studios in Bath and Bristol, and later expanded his business with two more studios in London and Brighton. He married Helena Friese on 24th March 1874 and decided to modify his name to include her maiden name.
In Bath he came into contact with John Arthur Roebuck Rudge[?]. Rudge was a maker a number of instruments but had begun to specialise in the creation of magic lanterns. He had recently developed the 'Biophantic Lantern'. The lantern was unique in that could display seven slides in rapid succession, and produce and effective illusion of movement. Friese-Greene was fascinated by the machine and in 1886 he began work with Rudge on enhancing it in order to project photographic plates. They called the device a 'Biophantascope'. Friese-Greene realised that glass plates would never be a practical medium for true moving pictures and in 1885 he began to experiment with oiled paper and by 1887 was experimenting with celluloid as a medium for motion picture cameras.
He became tantalized by the prospect of synchronizing phonographic sound reproduction with moving pictures and decided to contact Edison with his proposals. According to Friese-Greene, he sent details of his camera designs to Edison and suggested a partnership, but never received a reply. Edison claimed no knowledge of the papers. The validity of Friese-Greene's claim remains unresolved.
In 1889 Friese-Greene received a patent for his 'chronophotographic' camera. It was apparently capable of taking up to ten photographs per second using perforated celluloid film. He gave a public demonstration in 1890 but the low frame-rate combined with the device's apparent unreliability failed to make an impression. In the early 1890s he experimented with stereoscopic cameras but met with limited success. Friese-Greene’s experiments in the field motion pictures were at the expense of his other business interests and in 1891 he was declared bankrupt. To cover his debts he sold the rights to the 'chronophotographic' camera patent for £500. The renewal fee was never paid and the patent eventually lapsed.
Friese-Greene's later exploits were in the field of colour in motion pictures. Working in Brighton, he experimented with a system known as 'Biocolour' in which alternate frames were stained red and green. He found it impossible to exhibit 'Biocolour' motion pictures because a rival system developed by Charles Urban[?] and known as 'Kinemacolor' claimed that any colour film was an infringement of their prior patent. With the financial assistance of the renowned British racing driver S.F. Edge, Friese-Greene attempted to invalidate Urban's patent in court. Friese-Greene claimed that the patent did not contain enough detail to encompass the 'Biocolour' process. The judge ruled in Urban's favour but an appeal in the House of Lords in 1914 reversed the decision. Friese-Green's system was still in its infancy and he was unable to exploit this success. His son Claude continued to develop the system during 1920s.
In 1921 Friese-Greene was attending a film and cinema industry meeting in London. The meeting had been called to discuss the current poor state of the British film industry. Disturbed by the tone of the proceedings Friese-Greene got to his feet to speak but soon became incoherent. He was assisted in returning to his seat, and shortly afterward slumped forward and died. His grave can be found in London's Highgate Cemetery. A memorial designed by Edwin Lutyens describes him as 'The inventor of Kinematography'.
In 1951 a romanticised account of his life, starring Robert Donat and Laurence Olivier, was filmed as part of the Festival of Britain. Unfortunately, The Magic Box was not premiered until the Festival was nearly over, and only went on full release after it had finished. Despite the all-star cast and a great deal of publicity, the film was a costly box office flop.