One of the biggest tragedies to happen to motion pictures was less about what happened on the big screen but something that happened off camera at the very beginning of the story of the moving image. It was one train ride to Paris that wiped French inventor and artist Louis Le Prince’s name out of the books of history.
Born on 28 August 1841 in Metz, Le Prince was the son of a respected officer of the Lágion d’Honneur, a French order established by Napoleon in 1802. His family referred to him as “Augustin” and English-speaking friends would later call him “Gus”. He grew up spending time in the studio of his father’s friend, the photography pioneer Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, from whom the young Le Prince allegedly received lessons relating to photography and chemistry and for whom he was the subject of a Daguerrotype, an early type of photograph.
His education went on to include the study of painting in Paris and post-graduate chemistry at Leipzig University, which provided him with the academic knowledge he was to utilize in the future. Having studied all art, physics and chemistry at university, the Frenchman moved to Leeds where he met, fell in love with, and married English artist Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Whitley. Together the new couple began a school of applied art named the Leeds Technical School of Art. Soon they were well-renowned for their work combining photography on metal and ceramic. The family later moved to the US for some years while Louis managed a small group of French artists there.
It was also in the US that Le Prince began to build his sixteen-lens camera and experiment with film stock. In 1886 he created a 16-lens camera and applied for an American patent on 2 November of the same year, receiving this at the beginning of 1888; on 16 November 1888, he received a British patent for his invention. The Le Prince Single-lens Cine Camera, proved to be one of the most ground-breaking inventions of early cinema. While the contraption, which utilises paper-backed stripping film, may appear primitive by today’s standards, evidence that the equipment was successful in projecting moving images means that Louis Le Prince’s movies pre-date those of Edison and the Lumières by over half a decade.
In a cruel twist of fate however, it was a single day that erased the French inventor’s name as the original inventor of the motion picture camera. Once content with his creation, Le Prince had the first public exhibition of his work and his motion pictures scheduled in New York during September, 1890. Yet he never made it, disappearing just on the 16th of that month, never to be seen again and baffling authorities and film theorists for over 100 years. Following the death of his mother, Le Prince had travelled to Dijon, France to visit his family and spend time with his brother, Albert. Having dropped him at the train station with all of the material for his presentation and a suitcase said to be containing his latest patents, his brother waved him off … only for Le Prince never to arrive at his destination. French authorities and Scotland Yard launched an investigation immediately, but not a single passenger on the train reported seeing Le Prince onboard. Le Prince was officially declared dead in 1897. His disappearance for over a century has been riddled with many theories with rivalries with inventors such as Thomas Edison and heavy debt being listed as explanations.
For the most part, his work went largely unacknowledged among the wider public. However, thanks to the continued efforts of his family and the city of Leeds, where he’s considered a local legend, Le Prince’s work has been recognised in recent years. In 1930, there was a bronze memorial plaque unveiled in his honour and he was featured in the 1966 Jacques Deslandes documentary “The Comparative History of Cinema”. In September 2016 a documentary about Le Prince from Leeds filmmaker David Wilkinson, “The First Film” , played at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York. This was 126 years after Le Prince was set to screen his first films in the very same building.