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October 12, 2017

Florence Lawrence: Automotive Inventor and the “World’s First Movie Star”

Florence Lawrence was one of the most recognizable women in America in the early 1900s—although nobody knew her name. A leading lady in nearly 300 silent films at the dawn of American cinema, Lawrence remained un-credited on screen until a maverick studio owner used her name to promote his films and turn her into the first movie star.

Her exact birthdate, like the recognition for the woman herself, is seemingly lost in time. What is known is this: Florence Lawrence was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in either 1886 or 1890. Her father, George Bridgwood was a carriage builder. Her mother, Charlotte “Lotta” Bridgwood, was a vaudevillian actress so, naturally, Lawrence found herself drawn to acting from a young age.

Working under her mother—known professionally as “Lotta Lawrence,” the leading lady and director of the Lawrence Dramatic Company—young Florence made her motion picture debut in 1906. The next few years would see her rise to become what is generally regarded as the first movie star.

The Biograph Girl

Starring in nearly 300 films throughout the course of her career, Florence found herself on the receiving end of the financial windfall that was the burgeoning movie industry. Earning around $500 a week from Biograph Studios—a company that refused to put her name on the credits—she nonetheless became a familiar face to fans, who dubbed her “The Biograph Girl.” With a constant flow of work, Lawrence was soon wealthy enough to purchase an automobile—a somewhat extravagant rarity for women at the time. Finding a sense of freedom and enjoyment behind the wheel she’d never before experienced, Lawrence took to driving much as she had to acting.

Delving headfirst into the world of the automobile, Florence sought to learn all she could about the vehicle’s various mechanisms in between enthusiastic drives. She became so invested in the relationship between driver and car that at one point she reportedly described her vehicle as “almost human”—something that, in her words, responded ““to kindness and understanding and care, just as people do.” This love for the automobile lead Lawrence to explore additional safety measures to ensure the vehicle’s continued practical use.

The Actor Turns Inventor

In 1914, after years of learning about and tinkering with automobiles, Lawrence devised a mechanism that served as a signaling arm for drivers wishing to turn. Through the simple push of a button, her simple invention raised and lowered a flag on the rear bumper of the automobile to inform other drivers where the car was headed next. Along with this, she developed an equally simplistic and ingenious device to alert fellow motorists of an upcoming stop. Upon depressing the brake, a small sign reading “stop” would pop up in the rear of the car. Though rudimentary in design, her inventions would ultimately prove invaluable on the road.

Florence Lawrence sits behind the wheel of a Lozier open touring car with 1912 Pennsylvania license plates. (Credit: Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research)

Unfortunately for Lawrence, however, she failed to patent this creation or her next—the first electric windshield wiper, which began selling in 1917 under the Bridgwood Manufacturing Company. Lawrence’s mother would later try to remedy the oversight, but by then it was too late as other companies were quick to claim ownership and receive patents for similar designs.

While she failed to claim the first patent and, some would argue, was not even the first to devise such a system (that honor going to a Percy Douglas-Hamilton in England), Lawrence’s ingenuity and passion for the automobile was something of an anomaly at the time. The fact that she performed all her own mechanical work and devised these safety measures put Lawrence at the forefront of what could be viewed as an early form of women’s liberation, one for which she’s largely since been forgotten, but is by no means diminished in significance. Amazingly, it wouldn’t be until 1925 that anything resembling Lawrence’s design would see a patent, one turned in by the larger auto manufacturers.

A Tragic Death

After suffering severe burns in a studio fire in which she was attempting to save a fellow actor, Lawrence’s work in films began to dry up. Despite plastic surgery to attempt to repair the damage, she found herself more and more relegated to work as an extra. And while she had accumulated a great deal of wealth during her days as “The Biograph Girl,” the majority of it was lost in the stock market crash of 1929.

Her career at a standstill and her fortune having all but disappeared, Lawrence was left with little consolation. Adding insult to injury, she had also been married three times over the course of her life—once to automotive salesman Charles Byrne Woodring—and saw each relationship end in either death or divorce.

Alone and with no children or family to comfort her, Lawrence took her life on December 28, 1938 after calling MGM to let them know that, due to illness, she would not be able to perform the extra work for which she had been cast that afternoon. The following year, Buick began installing turn signals as a standard feature.

(This original article was published on The Historic Vehicle Association)


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