In the first half of the 1990s, an old photograph appeared in the archives of the Préfecture de Police in Paris. It showed the body of an unidentified drowned person that quickly sparked speculation: could this unfortunate person be Louis Le Prince?

Due to a lack of confirmation, we can only recall the story of this man who disappeared without a trace in 1889. It might not have been more significant than a typical police case, except for one crucial detail: if it weren’t for this disappearance, Le Prince would have been considered the true inventor of the cinematograph, ahead of the Lumière brothers and Edison.

The case becomes even more intriguing when we consider the hypotheses that emerged to explain why an inventor who was preparing to travel to the United States to present the camera with which he had recorded the first moving images suddenly vanished. This is where it gets morbidly interesting, as issues like patent wars, financial troubles, and the subsequent death of his son after testifying against Edison in court come into play.

Thomas Alva Edison in 1893
Thomas Alva Edison in 1893. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Louis Le Prince was born in the French city of Metz in 1841. He was the son of a military officer awarded the Legion of Honor who was friends with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, an artist considered the great precursor of photography for having invented the daguerreotype two years earlier, based on prior experiments in the field by the chemist and lithographer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (the man who captured the first real image in 1826). Daguerre, who earned the same medal as Le Prince’s father, had a studio where he took the young Louis as an apprentice, teaching him painting, as well as chemistry and photography.

The master passed away in 1851, and the student had to continue his studies in Paris and Leipzig; at the latter’s university, he graduated in Chemistry, and in 1861, he traveled to Leeds (England), accepting an invitation from a college friend whose father owned a foundry.

In fact, eight years later, Le Prince married his friend’s sister and business partner, Elizabeth, (Whitley Partners, they were called), who was a skilled ceramicist trained at Sèvres. Together, they opened an art school in 1871, the Leeds Technical School of Art. There, they taught photographic techniques, which by then had become widespread, and used ceramics to imprint color images.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The quality of the Le Princes’ photographic work, which was obviously very eye-catching, led them to receive commissions from Prime Minister William Gladstone and even Queen Victoria. Both photographs were placed in the time capsule that was placed in the foundations of Cleopatra’s Needle, an obelisk given to England in 1819 by the Egyptian viceroy Mehemet Ali in memory of Nelson’s victory at Abukir. It was transported to London in 1877 and installed on the Embankment, on the banks of the Thames.

It was in 1881 when Whitley Partners sent Le Prince as a representative to the United States, where they had the rights to a new interior design process called Lincrusta. They decided to settle there permanently, though he eventually left that job to become the manager of a company of French artists specializing in panoramas (360º images) of major historical battles, which they exhibited on tours across the country.

To improve these works, and while his wife became an art teacher, Le Prince began experimenting with the possibility of adding movement to the photos used as backgrounds, so the whole thing would be more realistic. To do this, he designed and patented a special camera with sixteen lenses, which, however, did not yield the desired result, capturing movement from different angles, thus projecting a confusing image.

Le Prince and his 1888 projector-machine
Le Prince and his 1888 projector-machine. Credit: Image 1: dominio público en Wikimedia Commons – Image 2: Fair use en Wikimedia Commons

Le Prince needed funding and approached the famous inventor Thomas Alva Edison, but the help did not materialize. He was advised to keep away from Edison, known for appropriating others’ inventions. So the second attempt took six years to arrive, and it did so at 160 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, where Le Prince had returned to obtain funds from his father-in-law and open a workshop. This time, he used only one lens and succeeded.

In the fall of 1888, he made what would become the first recording of authentic moving images, far beyond those of the kinetoscope. The scene is unofficially titled “Roundhay Garden Scene” because it is a brief scene showing one of his six children, Louis, his in-laws Joseph and Sarah (who curiously died a few days later), and a friend named Annie Hartley pretending to walk through the garden at Oakwood Grange, in the suburb of Roundhay, where the British Waterways building now stands.

It’s worth noting that the recording was brief, lasting just two seconds. However, it is now part of history, and its inventor, who had patented the device, was able to film more scenes. Filming, by the way, is the correct term because he used Kodak photographic film on paper base at a speed of seven frames per second. Following “Roundhay Garden Scene”, he recorded “Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge”, depicting the bridge’s traffic (pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, and the electric tram), “Man Walking Around a Corner”, and “Accordion Player” (his son Adolphe playing an accordion). Not satisfied with this achievement, he collaborated with a mechanic named James Longley to build a projector with three lenses that could project films onto a white fabric as a screen.

However, only family and friends had this privilege; Le Prince never made a public presentation because he always declined to do so until he was completely sure his invention was working perfectly. And when his wife finally had everything ready for a presentation in the United States, the enigmatic disappearance mentioned at the beginning occurred. He visited his family in Bourges, France, and on Friday, September 13, 1890, he took a train from Paris to meet his brother in Dijon, notifying that he would return to the French capital on Monday. But when they went to meet him at the station, he was not on board. Both the French police and Scotland Yard launched a search that yielded no results: there was no trace of Le Prince or his luggage. No witnesses reported anything suspicious, and his body was never found.

This uncertainty led to various theories, all based on his life context. For example, the grandson of his brother told Georges Potonniée (author of the book “Histoire de la découverte de la photographie“) that Le Prince was broke, suggesting he likely committed suicide.

Of course, that doesn’t explain the strange circumstances or why his luggage disappeared, especially since, as we saw, his financial situation might have been on the verge of changing. In 1967, Jean Mitry, a film theorist and producer, proposed in his work “Histoire du cinéma” that if Le Prince’s brother was the last person to see him alive, he would become the primary suspect, especially since they had an argument before parting. The motive might have been related to their mother’s inheritance, adding more evidence against bankruptcy and explaining why his grandson might have tried to protect his grandfather’s memory by exonerating him from a fratricide.

One of Le Prince's few surviving sketches: the three-lens projector.
One of Le Prince’s few surviving sketches: the three-lens projector. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Another variant of this hypothesis is that Le Prince took his own life, not for money but due to his homosexual orientation. This was suggested in 1966 by Jacques Deslandes in his book “Histoire comparée du cinéma“, and eleven years later, a journalist and writer named Léo Sauvage, who in 1965 had already tackled the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, added another twist to the story with a note given to him by Pierre Gras, director of the municipal library of Dijon: Le Prince didn’t commit suicide but disappeared, possibly by joining the Foreign Legion (he had military experience, having participated in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71), and in 1898 he secretly went to Chicago at his family’s request to prevent his homosexuality from being exposed. However, there’s no proof of this.

Thus, the final possibility, mentioned by Christopher Rawlence in 1990, is related to the mentioned patent war, which he explained in his biography of Le Prince, “The Missing Reel” (from which he also made a documentary). It detailed the suspicions held by Elizabeth and Adolphe toward Edison, against whom the American Mutoscope Company filed a lawsuit (known as Equity 6928). This company aimed to invalidate the patent registered by the American inventor, who exploited ambiguous wording in Le Prince’s patent from years earlier. To achieve this, they required family members to testify.

However, the case was ruled against them, and Edison, now known to have had no qualms about stealing other people’s patents (though it’s unclear if he would have gone so far as to commit murder), won the lawsuit. Rawlence, however, believed suicide was more likely.

To add more intrigue to the case, Adolphe, who was devastated by the judge’s decision, died in a hunting accident that soon led to more rumors. Was it Edison who orchestrated Adolphe’s death? Did he knowingly steal Le Prince’s idea? Did Le Prince join the Foreign Legion to disappear?

In the end, the mystery surrounding the disappearance of one of the pioneers of photography and cinema persists, and the only lead—if that’s what it is—is a lost photograph in some archives showing a corpse with a certain resemblance to Louis Le Prince. What an irony.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on August 13, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en La misteriosa desaparición de Louis Le Prince, el verdadero inventor del cinematógrafo


Jeremy Coller, Inventores increíblemente poco razonables; Sus vidas, amores y muertes | Pioneers of Early Cinema: Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince (1841-1890?) | Stephen Herbert, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince | Kilburn Scott, The Career of L. A. A. Le Prince | Christopher Rawlence, The Missing Reel | Jacques Deslandes, Histoire comparée du cinéma | Georges Potonnié, Histoire de la découverte de la photographie | Wikipedia

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