Important People, Important Discoveries, The Science of Film, Music & Art

Louis Le Prince: Forgotten Father of the Motion Picture

Origins of Le Prince

Born 28 August 1841 in Metz, France, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince is the long-forgotten father of the motion picture. With single-lens cameras of his own invention, Le Prince was the first person to shoot moving pictures on paper film.

His first two moving picture sequences, Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge, were filmed in October 1888 in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Le Prince exhibited his films at the Whitley Foundry in Hunslet, Leeds, but they were not shown or distributed to the general public.

Though these brief films predate the work of competing inventors, including Thomas Edison, by several years, Le Prince’s place in the history of cinema is largely forgotten. Also in 1888, Le Prince was granted an American dual-patent for his 16-lens device that operated as both a motion picture camera and a projector; a patent for his single-lens camera (known only as the MkI) was refused in the United States due to an interfering patent. Of consequence to Le Prince’s story, Edison’s application for the same patent was not refused when he applied for it just a few years later.

In late 1890, Le Prince was planning a public demonstration of his films in the United States. However, on 16 September of that year, boarded a train from Dijon, France, to Paris. When the train arrived, his friends and family discovered that Le Prince was not on board. His body and luggage were never found, and his mysterious disappearance remains unsolved to this day.

Patent War Assassination Theory

Several theories on Le Prince’s disappearance exist. Perhaps the most commonly agreed-upon of these is that he was assassinated by an unknown person on persons, on orders from Edison. At the time of his disappearance, he was engaged in a “patent war” with Edison regarding the invention of the moving picture camera. Le Prince’s widow and oldest son Adolphe suspected foul play, though no concrete evidence has yet been discovered.

Shortly after Le Prince vanished, Edison tried to take credit for the invention. In 1898, Adolphe Le Prince appeared in a court case brought against Edison by the American Mutoscope Company. Adolphe, who had assisted his father in many of his experiments as the MkI and subsequent MkII cameras were being developed, appeared as a witness for the defense—American Mutoscope hoped to discredit Edison’s claim to be the first and sole inventor the moving picture camera, which would then have entitle him to royalties for the use of the process.

Though Adolphe was not allowed to present his father’s cameras as evidence, and so re-establish Louis Le Prince’s prior claim as the inventor, it was hoped that citing the elder Le Prince’s achievements would gain him the posthumous recognition he deserved.

Ultimately, the court found in favor of Edison. A year later, the ruling was overturned. Two years later, Adolphe Le Prince was found dead while duck shooting on Fire Island near New York.

Louis Le Prince was officially declared dead in 1897. In 2003, during research in Paris police archives, an 1890 photograph of a drowning victim resembling Le Prince was discovered.