Louis Le Prince
The Mysterious Disappearance
Louis Le Prince
"Le Prince had either jumped or been pushed"
Louis Le Prince is considered by many to be a pioneer inventor who created the earliest known motion picture camera. He has been called the “Father of Cinematography”, because he was possibly the first person to shoot a moving picture sequence. However, his work would be conducted in the utmost secrecy, and Le Prince would fail get the recognition he deseved for his invention because he never performed at a planned public demonstration, owing to his sudden and suspicious disappearance. On the day he went missing, Le Prince was travelling on the Dijon to Paris train, after visiting his brother, but never arrived at his destination and neither his luggage nor his body was ever found. There are numerous theories concerning his disappearance, however there has never been a satisfactory explanation, and his legacy would ultimately be snatched away by the Lumière brothers who would go on to be credited with the creation of cinematic film.
Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born on August 28, 1841 in Metz, France, and grew up spending much of his time in the studio of his father’s friend, the photography pioneer Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. The young Le Prince received photography and chemistry lessons and would assist Daguerre with his own work on an early type of photograph he called a Daguerrotype. He would go on to study further at Paris, where he pursued his interest in painting and completed a post-graduate in chemistry at Leipzig University. Le Prince would go on to utilise this academic knowledge for his future work in cinematography.
In 1866 he was invited to move to Leeds, West Yorkshire in the United Kingdom by John Whitley, a friend from college, and he joined him at the brass founders firm, Partners of Hunslet, which made valves and components. By 1869 he married John’s sister, Elizabeth Whitley, who was described as a talented artist and the couple eventually started a school of applied art. The Leeds Technical School of Art was opened in 1871, and become nationally famous for the work they did in fixing colour photographs onto pottery and metal, and they were soon commissioned to create portraits using this method for the Prime Minister William Gladstone and even Queen Victoria.
Le Prince travelled to the United States in 1881 as an agent for Whitley Partners, and stayed in the countryside with his family when the contract ended. There he became involved with and managed a small group of French artists who produced large panoramas of famous battles, which were exhibited in Washington D.C., Chicago and New York City. It was during this time, in 1885, that he began to experiment with the production of “moving photographs”, and subsequently designed a camera which became the first of his inventions to be patented. It utilised sixteen lenses, and was capable of “capturing” motion from slightly different angles and viewpoints, so the image would appear to move about as if it was projected. However, it is unknown if Le Prince ever tested the device, or if it was ever a complete success. The family returned to Leeds in May 1887, and Le Prince continued to work on his projects, often assisted by his elder son Adolphe, in building and patenting a single camera lens in mid-to-late 1888.
He soon created an experimental model at his workshop in 160 Woodhouse Lane, in Leeds. Le Prince would later use an updated version of this model in shooting his motion-picture footage, which was used for the first time on 14 October 1888 in the garden of his in-laws’ house, Roundhay Cottage on Oakwood Grange Lane. There he filmed a 2.5 second scene in which his son Adolphe, father-in-law Joseph, mother-in-law Sarah and her friend Annie Hartley are shown dancing in circles in what would become known as the “Roundhay Garden Scene”, the world’s first motion picture. In another film, his son Adolphe can be seen playing an accordion on the steps.
This same camera would be used to shoot trams as well as horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic crossing the Leeds Bridge, that was created for Hicks the Ironmongers. In an attempt to create a larger moving image, Le Prince worked with James Longley, an adept mechanic, and together they experimented with the creation of a projector between 1889 and 1890. They attempted to create a single lens device, however after considerable work they had to settle for a three-lens projector. The process involved seperating the images, which were then printed and mounted individually onto a flexible band, that was moved by perforations. Le Prince and Longley had essentially created the first machine that projected a movie picture in the same way present day movies are shown at cinemas. Family and co-workers of Le Prince claim they saw these images projected onto a screen at his Leeds Workshop.
At this same time others were devoting considerable knowledge and resources to create something similar. The prolific inventor Thomas Edison, who held over a thousand patents in his name in the United States was working on the development of what he named a “Kinetograph”, after being inspired by the works of photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. The Kinetograph did not work the same as present day cinematic films, but merely created an illusion of movement through the conveyance of a strip of perforated film which bore the images over a light source with a high speed shutter. This process of rolling film was first described in a patent application submitted in France and the US by Louis Le Prince.
Undeterred, Edison attempted to develop another motion picture projector in 1887, by uniting his Phonograph with the Kinetograph to provide sound which matched the moving pictures. The Kinetoscope would be an early motion picture exhibition device, and was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. The Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis were also working on a camera which recorded moving pictures, which they began developing in 1892. They secured several patents of film perforation processes, which had originally been implemented by Emile Reynaud, which would allow the film to be shown through the camera and projector. Le Prince had planned a public showcase of his work in the United States, but first he prepared to go back to England in September 1890.
Before the journey he arranged to return home to France to visit his family and friends. He had arranged to visit his brother in Dijon for several days and left Bourges on 13 September. After the visit, his brother escorted him to the Dijon station and bid him farewell as he boarded the Dijon-Paris express. As the train arrived on 16 September, his friends realised that Le Prince was not on board the train, and no one knew his whereabouts or what happened to him. The investigation failed to find any luggage or a corpse in the Dijon-Paris train and an extensive search was conducted along the railway. It is believed the last person to see Le Prince alive was his brother, who said he watched him board the train but did not notice anyone following him or any strange behaviour. Nothing more was heard from Le Prince, and he was declared legally dead in 1897. Several theories have been put forward that explains what might have happened to Louis Le Prince.
Because his brother was the last person to see him alive, some have suspected he might have been responsible. This theory was first explored in 1967 by Jean Mitry in Histoire du cinéma, in which it is claimed Le Prince had never actually boarded the train at the Dijon station, but was murdered by his brother for unknown reasons, possibly financial. This theory is not particularly credible because his brother would not have gained any money from Le Prince’s death. An unsubstantiated rumour surrounds Le Prince and a possible scandal. Journalist Léo Sauvage reportedly saw a note shown to him in 1977 by the director of the Dijon municipal library, Pierre Gras, which claims Le Prince died in Chicago in 1898 and had moved there at the request of his family because he was homosexual. This theory has generally been discounted, with little to no evidence for any of the claims.
An assassination theory has gained ground as the reason for Le Prince’s disappearance, and had been explained as the culmination of the patent wars. The Le Prince family had long held suspicions over Thomas Edison and his Kinetograph patent. Before he vanished, Le Prince was about to patent his 1889 projector in the United Kingdom, and then leave Europe for his scheduled visit a New York exhibition, where he would hold a public showing of his invention. His widow Elizabeth believed that foul play was the reason for her husbands disappearance and his son Adolphe would play a role in the litigation brought by the American Mutoscope Company against Edison, which was also known as Equity 6928.
By calling upon Le Prince’s son to attest to his achievements, Mutoscope had hoped to annul Edison’s claims to have invented the first moving-picture camera. It was also hoped he would finally gained recognition for his achievements, however the case was ruled against Mutoscope in favour of Edison. Two years after he testified in court against Edison, Adolphe Le Prince was discovered shot dead whilst out duck hunting on Fire Island near New York. It has been suspected Le Prince was murdered for his invention, but again no evidence has been presented to support these accusations.
Some believe Le Prince may have committed suicide by jumping off the train. The grandson of his brother proposed this theory to film historian Georges Potonniée, claiming Le Prince was on the verge of bankruptcy and carefully managed his suicide so neither his body or his luggage would ever be found. But Potonniée has discounted this because Le Prince was proud of his inventions and had been on the verge of sharing his creation with the world, and his business was in fact profitable, so he had no reason to commit suicide. The idea that Le Prince had either jumped or been pushed off the train to his death was strengthened in 2003 when a search of the Paris police archives resulted in the discovery of a photograph of a Paris drowning victim who bears a remarkable resemblence to Le Prince.
On February 13, 1895, the Lumière brothers eventually patented their own version of Léon Guillaume Bouly’s original cinématographe and recorded their own footage on 19 March 1895, which showed workers leaving the Lumière factory. They held a private screening on March 22, 1895 and later a public showing took place on December 28, 1895, at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. The inventions and film footage of Louis Le Prince was years in advance of the Lumière brothers, however his sudden and unexplained disappearance meant his achievement would be credited to them and Thomas Edison was able to add the Kinetograph to his long list of inventions.