Silents are Golden: The Mysterious Disappearance of Louis Le Prince
If I asked you to name the first person who ever shot moving images on film, what would your guess be? Thomas Edison? The Lumière brothers? Someone more familiar to film buffs, like William K.-L. Dickson? Maybe you would try to be smart and shout “Eadweard Muybridge!” Not a bad guess, my friend, but I did say “on film.”
While it’s often debated who we should credit for inventing “moving pictures” per se–which would include Muybridge and the inventors of various optical illusion toys–the first man to shoot images on film strips, the way it would be done for decades to follow, was the distinguished-looking Louis Le Prince. A true pioneer of the cinema, his story is extraordinary not just for how he contributed to a brand-new art form, but for how it ends–in a tragic mystery that’s still unsolved to this day.
Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born in France in 1841, to a military family. His father was a major of artillery in the French army and had received the Légion d’honneur. While growing up he spent time in the studio of family friend Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, who taught him about photography. (Yes, he was that Daguerre, inventor of the famed daguerreotype.) As a young man the talented Le Prince studied art in Paris and chemistry in Leipzig, Germany. These different fields of study would all play their part in his future work.
In 1866 he moved to England to work for his friend John Whitley, who’d started a brass foundry. He would wed John’s sister Elizabeth, an artist, in 1869. The couple would found a school for the applied arts–that is, the art of making everyday objects both functional and beautiful. They attracted some fame for their work in making photographs on metal and pottery, and were commissioned to create portraits of Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone. These portraits, interestingly enough, were included in an 1878 time capsule that was installed under Cleopatra’s Needle in London (where it is to this day).
In 1881 Le Prince went to the U.S. as a Whitley Partners agent. Eventually he became a manager for a group of artists who made panoramas, which were exhibited throughout the country. It was around this time that he took the leap from working with still photographs to tinkering with the idea of moving photographs. Thanks to Muybridge, this was a big topic of interest to inventors at the time. His first experiment resulted in a camera with no less than 16 lenses. This certainly captured movement (so to speak), but by taking tons of photos at slightly different angles–images looked pretty wobbly.
Heading back to England in 1887, Le Prince began designing a more straightforward single-lens camera in a workshop in Leeds. Resembling a stubby wooden box, this camera used paper negatives and took around 12 to 20 photos per second. On October 14, 1888, he went to the Whitleys’ home Oakwood Grange and shot his first film with the new machine–footage of Joseph and Sarah Whitley, his son Adolphe, and family friend Annie Hartley walking in circles around their garden (with some amusement). At only a few seconds long, it’s the world’s oldest true, “shot on film” motion picture.
His equally-brief films Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge and Accordion Player (again featuring Adolphe) were filmed soon afterward, and he began work on a projector he was planning on patenting soon. Family would claim that he successfully projected still images in his Leeds workshop, but the public would never see the results of his hard work.
In 1890, with his wife and children already in New York in a newly-renovated mansion, Le Prince packed up his inventions and prepared to move. He planned on holding public demonstrations of his machines when he was back in the U.S., much like Edison and the Lumière brothers would do years later. Before officially moving, in September he went to visit family and friends in France. On September 16, his brother Albert saw him board the train in Dijon, heading to Paris–the first leg of his journey to New York. When the train arrived in Paris, however, Le Prince was not on it.
His bags had never arrived, there was no trace of him or his bags on board, and no bodies had been discovered along the train’s route. No strange behavior had been reported in either the Dijon station or on the train. Le Prince had simply vanished without a trace.
And that’s all we really know to this day. Naturally, numerous theories about what happened to Le Prince have been put forward over the years, some more plausible than others. The more common theories include:
Suicide — Supposedly Le Prince was facing bankruptcy and feeling trapped; however, this seems implausible considering his devotion to his family and all the plans to move to New York and demonstrate his exciting new inventions.
Fratricide — Since his brother Albert was the last person to see Le Prince alive, this has aroused some suspicion. However, there’s no evidence of any animosity between the brothers–quite the opposite, in fact.
Assassination — This theory’s gained the most steam since it involves the frenetic 19th-century patent wars. The story goes that Edison, hoping to control as much of the moving picture industry as he could, wanted to make Le Prince “disappear” before the Frenchman spoiled matters by filing new patents. Le Prince’s widow apparently favored this theory, but there’s never been any evidence to back it up–not to mention that it paints Edison as too much of a cartoon villain.
Le Prince’s descendants today apparently lean toward a simpler explanation. Le Prince apparently took a later train from Dijon than his Paris friends expected, hence why he didn’t arrive when they thought he would. It’s possible that he arrived late in Paris and was victimized by robbers, hence why his bags disappeared and no trace of him was found. In 2003, a photo from the Paris police archives surfaced showing an 1890 drowning victim who strongly resembles Le Prince. Could he have been robbed, knocked out and thrown into the Seine? It’s possible.
We will likely never know for sure. In any case, despite his tragic end, Louis Le Prince had just enough time to make a massive and lasting contribution to film history. And this author feels that he certainly deserves the title of “The Father of Cinema.”
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.