Louis Le Prince shot the world’s first movie, then disappeared forever. Was it murder?

One day in September 1890, a Frenchman named Louis Le Prince boarded a train in Dijon, heading for Paris. Two years earlier, Le Prince, a former chemist and industrial designer, had shot the world’s first film, a two-second clip of family members frolicking in a garden in Leeds, England, where they then lived.

This was three years before Thomas Edison announced his Kinetograph, a motion picture device similar to that of The Prince, and seven years before the Lumière brothers staged the first commercial showing of a motion picture.

Despite this, The Prince’s contribution to the history of cinema has largely been lost in the mists of time. Because that day in 1890, in debt and harassed by competitors including the already legendary Edison, Le Prince did not get off the train in Paris; he simply disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.

Did Edison kill his competitors? Was it suicidal? Or did Le Prince’s brother Alfred, who owed him a lot of money that he couldn’t repay, murder him? Paul Fischer, author of The Man Who Invented Cinema: A True Story of Obsession, Murder and Cinemaopts for the latter, claiming that because Alfred never reported his brother missing, lied about efforts to find him, and discouraged his wife – who was living in America at the time – from coming for him, he was the killer.

“[Le Prince] left no letters or writings suggesting he might end his life,” says Fischer, “his colleagues and family saw no despair in him, and he had made plans for the future, including a trip to New York to unveil his invention.

Film The Prince from a garden scene in Leeds, Yorkshire, October 1888.

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The mystery of Le Prince’s death is not, however, the most interesting element of Fischer’s book, which is a comprehensive look not only at the life of the Frenchman, but also at the history of photography and attempts to move from visual still lifes to real movement. “I hope [the book] helps us think in different ways about what cinema was like when people were inventing it,” says Fischer. “The only questions they had were: is it moving? Do you believe it? Will it grab people’s attention? Is this life?

In order to tell this story, Fischer’s book is filled with names that have become legendary in the history of photography and cinema: Louis Daguerre, one of the fathers of the photographic process; Eadweard Muybridge, who was the first to take pictures that froze motion (before that, subjects had to stay still for a certain time in order for their picture to be taken); George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, whose Kodak camera, with emulsion-coated paper reels, replaced glass plates and was a major breakthrough; and the lesser known John Carbutt, who perfected celluloid film, which Eastman later introduced on rolls for his cameras.

“If The Prince had lived and kept control of his invention, perhaps there is no Hollywood.”

All of these men profited from an era, extending approximately from 1840 to 1890, which saw tremendous advances in technology and the invention of photography, the telegraph, the steam engine, anesthesia, telephone, electric light and more. Fischer says much of this rapid technological advancement was “encouraged by law, in the form of patents. If you could show that you invented something — if you could show that you were the first — you could patent that invention, and no one else would be allowed to make money from it without your permission. So now, each advancement leads to the next advancement, because it opens up a whole new field of potential advancement, and each of those advancements means money.

French inventor and filmmaker Louis Le Prince, right, with his stepfather, Joseph Whitley, at the Whitley family home in Roundhay, Leeds, Yorkshire, 1887.

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Although The man who invented cinema goes into great, sometimes exhausting detail surrounding the technological advances that made movies possible, it’s the story of who ultimately got the credit for the invention, and the legal issues surrounding it, that have the most contemporary resonance. And that’s all about Edison, who comes across as a combination of Donald Trump and Steve Jobs, a man who in many ways was the 19th century version of a modern tech entrepreneur who also used loopholes in the legal system to beat the competition.

Edison was a big fan of the disclaimer, a kind of prepatent, in which an inventor declares his intention to file a full submission soon. This could be used to establish priority over a device and help someone like Edison stifle rivals. If a rival applied to certify a similar process, the Patent Office would put it on hold, notify the holder of the disclaimer, and give them three months to file a formal application. Edison used the caveat 120 times.

So even though Le Prince was the first to design reels of film and a camera and projector with a single lens each, thus abandoning the use of glass plates, his progress was, through the sophisticated use – some would say amoral – Edison’s patent laws. , almost cancelled.

“A lot of the nefarious things that can be associated with Edison aren’t much different from the practices of big business today,” says Fischer. “He bashed the competition and sometimes robbed them and often chased smaller rivals into the ground. He’s exploited the patent system in a way that’s not too dissimilar to how a company like Disney uses its own clout to exploit copyright law to its own advantage.

Still, the historical record is what it is: this short clip shot by The Prince, now known as the Roundhay Garden Scene, is unquestionably the earliest motion picture footage, and it is, according to Fischer, a glimpse of what he considers to be the intentions of the inventor. and hopes for new technology.

“The first words that came to mind when I watched the Roundhay Garden scene were ‘home movie’,” says Fischer. “I think that’s one thing I really love about it. The Prince really seemed to think of cinema first and foremost as something that would connect people and preserve memories and allow us to relive our loved ones even after they are gone. the [scene] really struck me because it has this harmless, everyday quality.

Fisher says this to contrast The Prince’s film with the early work of people like Edison and the Lumière brothers, who “mostly did little sketches that could showcase the novelty value of their inventions”, filming things such as a crowd leaving a factory or a train rushing towards the viewer. “The Prince knew the show was important,” says Fischer. “His early ideas for filming subjects included the circus and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But for this first film, he chose to film his family taking silly walks in the garden at home.

This camera made by Louis Le Prince took a series of photos using 16 independent shutters, triggered in sequence.

SSPL/Getty Images

And that was it for The Prince. Years after his demise, Edison won the patent war and, along with other companies, formed a monopoly that demanded licensing fees from all producers, distributors, and exhibitors. This forced independent producers of the day to flee the East Coast and settle in the new town of Hollywood. Would things have been different if The Prince had been alive?

“If The Prince had lived and kept control of his invention, maybe there is no Hollywood,” says Fischer. “Perhaps the independent film ecosystem would have been healthier, as The Prince seems to have intended his film camera to be widely available, as cameras were. [Or] it might not have been much different at all, except maybe the kids would have discovered Louis Le Prince at school, and maybe the movie world would have stayed in New York a bit longer.

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