originally published June 27, 2014
As an aspiring young (using the most broad and generous definition of “young”) film studies major, I was fascinated by the pre-Edison attempts at capturing moving pictures for subsequent viewing. Eadweard Muybridge used a long row of still cameras to capture a galloping horse’s stride, only to spurt the images in semi-full-motion through his zoopraxiscope. Coleman Sellers invented the kinematoscope, using a hand-cranked paddle machine to bring pictures to life. Then there’s Henry Renno Heyl’s phasmotrope, which demonstrated that every early cinematic invention had a cool name.
But we can’t forget ol’ Louis Le Prince, the Frenchman who patented his own camera that created a sequence of photos on treated paper. Like Muybridge, Sellers and Heyl, Le Prince’s work is seen as part of the multi-textured groundwork that gave birth to Thomas Edison’s magical moving-picture camera – the real genesis of the movie biz. Or so they say.
Except that Louis Le Prince’s story goes a little deeper than that. His is a tale, not only of innovation and genius, but of a curious – some might say suspicious – disappearance, and a very smarmy lawsuit against the man who would eventually get the credit for being the brains behind movie technology.
Louis was a brilliant photographic technician, which was the 19th-century way of saying he was a brilliant photographer. There wasn’t much one could artistically accomplish with cameras back then, but Louis was renowned for his skills at fixing color photographs onto metal and pottery surfaces, which earned him the privilege of creating portraits of Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone. He moved from Leeds (where he had been situated since his mid-20’s) to New York in 1881, a pioneer in his field.
Like a lot of inventive minds back then, Louis was focused on making pictures move. He felt that treated paper – similar to what was used to house still images – was the way to go. He built a 16-lens camera that kind of worked, though because each “frame” was captured by a different lens, which captured the subject from a slightly different angle, the moving pictures jumped around somewhat awkwardly. Louis scooted back to Leeds in May 1887 and figured it out: a single-lens camera that could create actual moving images.
Louis used his camera to capture this 2-second film – arguably the first legitimate motion picture (spoilers: people walk a few steps). He had done it. It was a long hike from Scorcese, but Louis Le Prince had invented the movies. He even figured out how to project it onto a screen. He just needed to make one quick trip back to visit some family in France, then he’d patent his camera in the UK and jet off to America to promote it. Fame and fortune awaited this forward-thinking concoctor of dreams.
If only he hadn’t vanished.
Louis left Bourges by train on September 13, 1890 to meet his brother in Dijon. They hung out for a couple days, then on the 16th Louis boarded a train to Paris. He was never heard from again. There was no luggage, no body, no trace of his having been on the train, apart from his brother’s testimony that he’d watched Louis board. The case was never solved. French police worked with Louis’ family and Scotland Yard to try to piece together what happened.
Louis’ brother’s grandson went on the record stating that it was probably a suicide because Louis was bankrupt. That’s unlikely – his business was doing well and he was on the verge of popping out a revolutionary new invention. Another theory is that Louis was ordered by his family to ‘disappear’ to Chicago because he was a homosexual. No evidence of this, but people like biting into conspiracies so I thought I’d offer you a taste.
The brother is certainly a suspect, being the last person to have seen Louis alive and the only one who swears he boarded that train. There’s also the remote possibility that Louis might have befallen a random act of savagery, but with no trace of a body or of any of his belongings, it seems suspicious. There was one other suspect – one who was never formally accused nor was he even seriously investigated at the time. But it’s certainly worth a mention.
Would the master of the light bulb, founder of the phonograph and direct-current advocate Thomas Edison actually murder a man so he could steal his invention? Probably not, but it is significant that Louis was just about to patent his creation, one that would have likely pushed Edison down the chow line at the banquet of motion picture innovation. Louis’ family suspected foul play in his disappearance, but there was no evidence of anyone mucking up the works – not his brother, not his elder kin and certainly not Thomas Edison.
But history shows that Edison was running neck and neck with Louis: he’d invented the optical phonograph in 1888 and just a year after Louis’ disappearance he came up with his prototype kinescope. The motive was certainly there, though I’d have to agree that it’s a stretch to think that Edison would resort to murder to protect his legacy in this one field. He’s more the public-smear-campaign type anyway, as any devotee of Nicola Tesla will tell you.
By 1898 – one year after Louis Le Prince had been officially declared dead by authorities who had completely given up hope – Thomas Edison brought a lawsuit against the American Mutoscope Company (better known as Biograph), claiming he was the sole inventor of motion pictures and that he should receive royalties on anyone else’s work in the world of film. Adolphe Le Prince, Louis’ son, was called by the defense to testify. Adolphe and his mom were eager to welcome a big judicial stamp that solidified Louis’ place in history as the father of cinema.
Adolphe testified, but was not allowed to present Louis’ two cameras as evidence. I don’t know why; perhaps it was because Louis never got around to patenting his single-lens marvel. Maybe the judge was just being a dick. The case was ruled against Mutoscope, and Louis’ legacy took a serious hit. Eventually, Edison and Mutoscope teamed up for the outlandishly greedy Motion Picture Patents Company, and everyone else who had a hand in the invention of movies but was not a part of their little clubhouse was relegated to the dustbin of history.
We’ll never know what happened to Louis Le Prince. In 2003, an enthusiastic history detective discovered an unidentified drowning victim in the Paris police archives from 1890 that might have been Louis, but we’ll never know for sure. Also – and this just adds to the flurry of weirdness – Adolphe Le Prince was found dead of a weird shooting accident while duck hunting on Fire Island two years after testifying against Edison.
Proof of Edison’s evil? Hardly. Suspicious enough to bump an eyebrow just a little over the horizon? Hmmm….