Interesting Facts

Louis Le Prince Invented the motion picture camera, and then he mysteriously disappeared

Louis Le Prince, the inventor of motion pictures, vanished without a trace in 1890. Thomas Edison quickly claimed the title of "first and sole inventor of cinema," even taking Le Prince's son to court to dispute it. A few years later, the son also dies under mysterious circumstances.

The Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison are both recognized in film history for their contributions to the art.

However, a lesser-known individual who has been dubbed the “forgotten father of cinema” deserves more attention.

The French inventor Louis Le Prince used a camera he created to create a short film in 1888.

According to an odd coincidence of fate, Paul Fischer, a writer and film producer, “His films could be dated very precisely to have been made seven years before that of the Lumière brothers.”

Le Prince, however, was never able to claim his rightful place in cinema history because he mysteriously disappeared before he could screen that movie in New York as he had intended in 1890.

Le Prince shot these films, had the paperwork approved, and then vanished, according to Fischer. “[Le Prince’s] machine still exists in a museum; he held the patents.

Curiously, Thomas Edison claimed to have created a motion picture camera in 1891 just a few months after Le Prince vanished.

“One of the great twists in the story is that Le Prince’s family, his widow and his children became convinced that Edison had just stolen Louis Le Prince’s ideas,” he says.

According to Fischer, Edison has historically been accused of stealing other people’s ideas through bureaucracy.

And to make matters worse, Le Prince’s widow Lizzie suspected that Edison might have had something to do with her husband’s disappearance.

The spark

In the eastern French city of Metz, Louis Le Prince was born in 1841.

Louis Le Prince [right] with his father in-law at the Whitley family home in Roundhay, Leeds, West Yorkshire, 1887. Photo credit: Getty: Hulton Archive
Louis Le Prince [right] with his father in-law at the Whitley family home in Roundhay, Leeds, West Yorkshire, 1887. Photo credit: Getty: Hulton Archive

He was raised in a middle-class military family and went to college to study chemistry, optics, and the arts.

“He was very much like one of those people at the end of the Victorian era who were trying to combine artistic pursuits with technological development,” Fischer claims.

He wed Elizabeth Whitley, an artist, in 1869, and the two eventually settled in England where he went to work at her relatives’ iron forge.

He claims that’s when he first learned about the patent system and the notion that you could invent something that would change your life.

Le Prince’s interest in developing a motion picture camera was motivated by two things, according to his wife.

In his shed, he started to experiment with photography. While holding two frames, one of them slipped, giving the impression for a split second of a moving figure.

After his father-in-law gave his grandchildren a magic lantern, an early type of projector, the second part of his concept was born.

After that, Le Prince became fixated on the creation. And he was prepared to risk the fame and wealth of his entire family in order to see it through.

“At times, when you read [his] correspondence, it feels like his sort of sanity is on the line; that this spark, this vision, had taken over his life,” Fischer says.

Le Prince’s perseverance finally paid off. He developed a 12-frame-per-second standing camera.

According to some writing by [Le Prince’s] son, they may have been aiming for 14, 15, or 16 [frames per second], but 12 was the best they could manage, according to Fischer.

Le Prince also used this camera to record the well-known Roundhay Garden Scene.

This short film, which Le Prince shot in October 1888, is the oldest motion picture still in existence.

Le Prince’s in-laws, a friend of the family, and his son are seen having fun in the Yorkshire home’s garden, according to Fischer.

And in many ways, it has the element that makes movies so magical: it is extremely vivid and realistic, but unmistakably ghostly.

George Eastman of Eastman Kodak launched the sale of flexible roll film around the same time. As a result, Le Prince was able to successfully capture and project his movie.

Prior to that, he had to project his movie onto paper or glass plates, both of which could catch fire or shatter.

Therefore, Fischer explains, “There are letters, correspondence, and diaries where [Le Prince] and his associates, as well as Joseph, his father-in-law, say “He’s done it, he’s figured it out.”

Le Prince asked his wife to rent a mansion in New York so he could use it as a location to publicly show his films for the first time. He was eager for the general public to see this new invention. And he announced to everyone his intention to relocate to New York.

The disappearance

Le Prince visited his brother in France once more before departing in order to settle a family inheritance.

After spending a weekend with his family in Dijon in September 1890, he took a train back to Paris where he intended to meet up with some friends before boarding a ship for New York.

Le Prince vanishes at some point between getting on the train in the south of France and the train arriving in Paris, according to Fischer.

It took weeks before anyone realized he had vanished due to the geography and lack of technology in the area.

Shortly after he vanished, a report claiming Thomas Edison to have invented the motion picture camera appeared in New York newspapers.

“As Elizabeth is reading it, [she realises] it sounds exactly like what Louis was working on — and was about to make a fortune from,” Fischer says.

Louis Le Prince Invented the motion picture camera and then he mysteriously disappeared 2
Thomas Edison experimenting with his motion picture machine in 1905. Photo credit: Getty: Bettmann

Fischer does not believe Edison was involved in the disappearance of Le Prince, despite Elizabeth’s suspicions.

He claims that Edison frequently destroyed his rivals by filing caveats as an alternative, preventing other inventors from realizing their ideas.

A caveat is a formal notice that prohibits other parties from temporarily pursuing an interest in something, be it real estate or land.

Being a wealthy man, Edison submitted countless caveats, laying claim to vast areas of technology that he had never even considered, much less developed, says Fischer.

Edison would have a year and the information from the patent someone else had filed to create his own copy, he explains. “So if somebody actually filed a patent, to invent something, then the patent office would send out a cable saying someone has activated your caveat number.”

Le Prince’s son, who participated in many of his father’s experiments, nevertheless sued Edison in order to disprove his claims to have invented the motion picture camera.

The lawsuit was unsuccessful, despite the family’s desire for Le Prince’s labor to be valued for what it was.

Without a trace

Other explanations for Le Prince’s disappearance and alleged murder have developed over time.

According to Fischer, there have been rumors that Le Prince’s family members, like his brother-in-law, may have killed him due to a fight or a desire for money.

There’s also the possibility that he was killed or kidnapped in Paris, which was rife with street crime at the time.

“It was common for people to pull bodies out of the River Seine,” he says.

Another theory holds that Le Prince either committed suicide or fled and began a new life in order to conceal the fact that he existed. This is because his work was going horribly and he was running out of money.

And finally, there’s a chance that a rival, other than Edison, may have been involved in carrying out the act of eliminating the rival that Le Prince’s family had accused Edison of carrying out.

Le Prince’s disappearance, however, continues to be one of the most intriguing unsolved Victorian mysteries.

Sadly, his family was unable to bring attention to his legacy until it was too late.

“One fascinating thing about his disappearance is that at the time, under the law, if somebody went missing, if a body wasn’t found, and he couldn’t be declared dead, then all of their property, including intellectual property, was frozen for seven years, or until a body was found,” says Fischer.

In Le Prince’s case, this meant that for seven years his family was unable to use his patents, present the machine, license it, or profit from it.

On September 16, 1897, Le Prince was formally pronounced dead.

The Lumière brothers created the Cinématographe during this time, and Thomas Edison released the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera. They all became very wealthy.

“In a strange, ironic twist of fate, by the time Lizzie is able to sign the deed and take over Le Prince’s property, the race has been run,” Fischer says.

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