The Mysterious Disappearance of Louis Le Prince, Father of Cinematography

The Mysterious Disappearance of Louis Le Prince, Father of Cinematography

The race to conquer new frontiers of innovation is not a new event, but it is well known. What can be learnt from history about these types of competitions, however, is that it is not always to the winner go the spoils; the lightbulb and telephone are infamous examples, but the moving picture can be added to that list.

Louis Le Prince is sometimes referred to as the father of cinematography and the more historical research that has gone into this claim and Le Prince’s life, the more credible that statement becomes. If his genius were not enough to pique the curiosity of camera enthusiasts and inventors alike, the mystery and conspiracy embroiled in his life and eventual disappearance most certainly will.

Le Prince had indeed succeeded making pictures move at least seven years before the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison and so suggests a rewriting of the history of early cinema. - Richard Howells 

The Beginning 

Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born on the 28th August 1841 in Metz, France. His father was a major in the French Army, but it was the company his father kept that had the most dramatic impact on Le Prince's and photography's future. While nothing more than a curious child, Le Prince was introduced to his father's friend, Louis Daguerre, a man who not only captured the young boy's interest, but a man who contributed to the furthering of photography too. For some, the name Daguerre may ring a bell, and this is likely due to his invention of the Daguerrotpye photography, a process where silver-plated copper is polished, treated with fumes to make it light sensitive, and then exposed in a camera (you can read more about the process by clicking here). There have been recent and successful attempts to recreate this technique

A portrait of Louis Daguerre in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot using the medium of Daguerreotype.

Daguerre spent time in his studio with little Le Prince and taught him the ways of photography and the chemistry necessary at the time. These childhood lessons lead Le Prince down a path of the arts which saw him go on to study painting in Paris and post-graduate level chemistry at Leipzig University in Germany. After meeting an engineer by the name of John Whitley, Le Prince moved to Leeds, England to work for John's company, Whitley's, as a designer. During his time at Whitley's, he met John's sister, Elizabeth, whom he went on to marry three years later in 1869. Le Prince started the Leeds Technical School of Art in 1871 with his wife, where the couple built a reputation for color photography on metal and pottery. Their work was so well-received it lead to exciting commissions from Queen Victoria and the Prime Minister, William Gladstone. A decade later, Le Prince and his family moved to the United States while still working under Whitley, where he managed a group of French artists famed for large panoramic paintings of military encounters. While working in the US, he developed an unusual camera which utilized sixteen lenses for the purpose of a technological race that was ongoing: the motion picture, a concept that had yet to be achieved.

Image used under Creative Commons 3.0 courtesy of Wikipedia user KGGucwa.

The Moving Image

Le Prince's first effort at the moving picture came in the form of a 16-lens camera (see below) which rotated between the lenses to take a sequence of frames. He anticipated that for the brain to see a continuous image as opposed to the familiar flick-book effect, there needed to be 16 frames per second. Le Prince's first solution to this problem was very much an Occam's Razor kind of approach; if you would like sixteen pictures, use sixteen lenses. However, this produced an obvious problem: each lens was — if only marginally — in a different position from its predecessor, and thus, the resulting frames when put in a row and projected would create a very wobbly motion picture. Nevertheless, this was Le Prince's first patent, which interestingly covered cameras and projectors with as many as 16 lenses.

Le Prince 16-lens camera (interior), 1886, Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

In May 1887, however, Le Prince and his family returned to Leeds where his innovation took a large and important step for both him and cinematography. He built a new camera with the purpose of capturing motion pictures, but this one was single-lens, but that was only the tip of the iceberg of his innovation. There were a number of problems to be overcome if motion pictures were to be achieved, and the mind-bending action cam-esque results from Le Prince's sixteen camera crate were one part of a multifaceted challenge. He had come to the conclusion that it wasn't as straightforward as having the shutter open and close sixteen times per second, as the exposure wouldn't be correct and the film would be moving, which would create blurred results. Le Prince created a sort of clamp that would stop the film every time the shutter "opened," but this could cause the film to snap as it makes its way through the process. This meant that there had to be an additional alteration where the film only moved when the shutter was "closed." The solution is the reason for "opened" and "closed" being in quotations when discussing this single-lens camera. The camera's shutter was actually nothing more than a hole in a rotating disc — a very intelligent approach.

Unfortunately, capturing the motion picture was only half the problem. The next minefield to be navigated was projecting the results as the intended moving image. With flexible celluloid not being readily available quite yet, the only real option was for the images to be put on to glass slides and to have them move in front of a lens. The slides would be on a sort of conveyor belt that would rotate them in order in front of the lens and then back around again so that a continuous projection could be achieved. As you might have spotted, the difficulties with doing this are nearly a perfect mirror of capturing the images in the first place: namely, the slides had to move at the same speed they were captured and without the slides moving within the device too much. Nevertheless, Le Prince had made a monumental breakthrough. The first motion picture captured (and it is believed to be the first ever) was from Leeds Bridge in 1888. It is said that Le Prince used the location which had the most movement that he could think of. You can see that video below:

Le Prince was proud of his invention and excited to share his few motion pictures created with his wife who had remained in the US. His wife prepared a theater in their home for the grand unveiling, and Le Prince packed up his equipment and set off first to resolve some family business in France before making his way to New York to demonstrate his creations and patent the new technology and methods. He never made it to New York.

Mysterious Disappearance

In early September 1890, prior to his voyage to New York to rejoin his family, Le Prince made his way to Bourges in central France to visit some friends for a few days. Then, on September 13, he traveled east to the capital of the Burgundy region, Dijon, where he stayed with his brother, Albert. Three days later, Le Prince waved farewell to his brother at the Dijon station as he boarded the Dijon to Paris express train. When the train arrived at the Parisian station later on September 16, Le Prince's friends were met with an unusual circumstance: Louis didn't get off the train. Even more unsettling, he wasn't on the train and nor were any trace of his luggage or belongings. The Dijon to Paris express was said to have had no stops in between, and his brother Arthur confirmed his departure. None of the other commuters reported any strange behavior or emergency exits. The French Police, London's Scotland Yard, and Le Prince's family and friends launched extensive searches and an investigation into his whereabouts, but Louis, his corpse, his belongings, nor any clues were ever found. It isn't often that a person vanishes without a trace, and Le Prince's family and friends claimed foul play for many years, suspecting his competitors. There have never been any conclusive results to the case, and he was declared dead in absentia in 1897. However, in 2003, research of the Paris police archives yielded a drowning victim in 1890 said to resemble Le Prince, though it has not been confirmed, and it does not dispel half of the primary theories surrounding his disappearance, of which there are four. Two prominent theories can be, with a degree of confidence, disregarded, and I will list these first.

Suicide

A well planned and executed suicide could account for his traceless disappearance, and Le Prince's grandson speculated as such to the Film Historian Georges Potonniée, citing that Louis was on the verge of bankruptcy. The financial thread to this case spawned another related theory.

Disappearance for Familial Convenience

Again, on the assumption that Le Prince was in severe financial difficulty, Cinema Historian Jacques Deslandes posited in 1966 that Louis agreed to vanish due to problems over money and "familial conveniences." The suicide theory and any other proposal based on financial difficulty have been debunked; Le Prince's business was profitable, and his newest success in the race for the first moving picture meant he had no real motive to do so. The "familial conveniences" suggestion was unpacked by a journalist in 1977 who quoted a note shown to him by the director of the Dijon municipal library that claimed he died in 1898 in Chicago. Le Prince was said to have moved there for his family's sake as he was homosexual, but there is no real evidence to confirm that to be the case other than the stigma surrounding homosexuality at that time.

It is here we move on to the two theories that while perhaps more farfetched are conversely more plausible and follow the notion of foul play.

Fratricide

Fratricide is the murder of one's sibling and that is a question that ought to have been posed early on in the case. Arthur, Le Prince's brother, was the last person to see Louis alive and claims to have watched him depart on the express train he never disembarked from. Perhaps it could be said that Arthur had the means to kill his brother, but the real question is of motive. In Jean Mitry's book, Histoire du Cinéma, Mitry claims that the most likely scenario is that Le Prince didn't ever board that train in Dijon and that he was either killed by Arthur for money, or that Arthur made no attempt to stop his suicide. As has been covered already, however, no family or friends at the time felt that Louis was suicidal, and evidence appears to point to the contrary; Le Prince was excited by his new invention and had a profit-making business.

Assassination(s)

No good conspiracy theory is complete without an assassination strand to it, but of all the theories, this is the one with the most motive. In 1889, Le Prince was about to patent his new projector as well as exhibiting his new motion picture in New York. The race to achieve this had, for all intents and purpose, been won by Louis, and patenting his inventions would secure his legacy in cinematography. This prompted the Le Prince family's suspicions of Thomas Edison over a patent know as Equity 6928. The result of who was awarded this patent was the person who would have invented the moving picture camera, and it was of great importance. The American Mutoscope Company initiated litigation against Edison in a war of the patents over Equity 6928, hoping to have Le Prince properly credited for the creation of the motion picture camera and called upon Adolphe Le Prince, Louis's eldest son to be a witness. Adolphe had worked closely with his father on a number of his experiments, and the hope was that the court hearing his many achievements would gain Le Prince the recognition he so deserved. Unfortunately, the initial case was awarded in the favor of Edison, and just two years later, any hope of an appeal was shattered when Adolphe Le Prince was found dead on Fire Island near New York while out hunting ducks.

Louis Le Prince, self portrait.

Legacy

Whatever the cause for his untimely death, Louis Le Prince's legacy has been growing ever since, with his recognition finally materializing. In recent years, Le Prince has been credited with the original inventor of the moving picture camera and his genius is finally being appreciated.

Oakwood Grand in Roundhay, Leeds, West Riding of Yorkshire, England on October 14, 1888. The oldest surviving film in existence. Shot by Louis Le Prince.

Sources: The Missing Reel (1990) - Christopher Rawlence, ​Histoire Comparée du Cinéma (1966) - Jaques Deslandes, Histoire du Cinéma (1967) - Jean Mitry, National Media Museum (UK), Wikipedia, YouTube, Department of Journalism & Creative Media, The University of Alabama

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6 Comments

Spy Black's picture

Hmm, interesting. There's always been a lot of talk about Edison being quite a dick, but I wonder how far he would have gone to have gotten his way. He screwed various people, especially Tesla. We may never know I guess.

Percy Ortiz's picture

Woah! what a gripping Story. I have read this article from top to bottom, (and I'm now googling more about it) something that hasn't happened for a while here at fstoppers. Thanks Robert (y)

Robert K Baggs's picture

One comment like this makes it all worth it -- thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Percy.

Great story! Never heard of him until this article and always thought Edison was the only one to develop the Movie Camera. Thanks for this very interesting article!

Stuart Smith's picture

Fascinating. Thank you.

Im here because of the failure post you wrote 😂 Loved it by the way, only hoped you would share more examples 😇