The strange disappearance of the man who took the first motion picture, Louis Le Prince

April 30, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism.

The identity of the person who “invented” motion pictures, in the sense that we know them today, has always been a matter of dispute—even though Thomas Edison has made the claim and owned the patent. Like many modern inventions (the airplane, the radio, etc.), cinema has many founders. In reality, Edison may be the least of them.

Indisputably, as far as the evidence now at our disposal, the person who made the first “film” was the rarely acknowledged Louis Le Prince, a Frenchman with an English wife. The couple moved from Europe to America in 1881. One of the reasons why he is so self-associated with the origins of cinema is that he disappeared—literally—in 1890.

Le Prince was a chemist and “dabbler” with various emerging technologies in the latter part of the 19th century. His future wife, Lizzie Whitley, met him when she came to Paris to study sculpture. They married and returned to Leeds, England, where Le Prince joined the family firm as a draftsman and foreign sales agent. They had children and for a time shifted their living arrangements between Leeds and France.

After the move to America, Le Prince got interested in photography and in the idea of making “moving pictures.” Le Prince was not alone in this interest. Thomas Edison’s domain and reputation had grown to the extent that he believed that anything new coming down the pike should be his, and he and his lawyers were adept at filing preemptive claims on inventions that he had simply heard about. He had heard about what Le Prince and others were up to, and so claimed the idea.

Meanwhile, Le Prince actually did it. A year after he and his family returned to Leeds in 1887, he made a motion picture. It still exists and shows people in a garden, moving about. The “film” is about two seconds long. (You can see it here on the New York Times website.) Le Prince had built a single-lens camera that would record motion. There were flaws and shortcomings in what he had made, but he kept tinkering and eventually prepared for a public demonstration, which would mean a return to America.

That was in 1890, and on September 16, he boarded a train in Dijon and headed for Paris. His brother saw him board the train. He was never seen or heard from again.

Police from France and England mounted exhaustive searches for him over the next few years but found very little to indicate what had happened to him. His wife and family tried in every way they could to advance their claim that he should be credited with inventing the film camera, but his absence effectively blocked their efforts. Lizzie Le Prince came to believe that Thomas Edison had a hand in her husband’s death, but there is no evidence to support that idea.

Film historian Paul Fischer has research Le Prince’s life and death extensively and has recently published The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures: A True Tale of Obsession, Murder, and the Movies. A review by Leah Greenblatt in the New York Times says:

Barring some improbably rich paper trail, no conscientious biographer can presume to know for sure, and that’s a hazard Fischer has to navigate: the editorial line between strictly available truths and making a dead man come alive. His eloquent, sometimes excitable writing style goes a long way when it doesn’t wander off into the celluloid weeds. And the final pages offer, if not hard conclusions, a bittersweet postscript and even real catharsis — too late for Le Prince, maybe, but some kind of justice nonetheless.

Fischer was interviewed on Dan Snow’s podcast, and you can listen to that at this location.

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