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By Kieron Casey on

The mystery of Louis Le Prince, the father of cinematography

Louis Le Prince was the first person to create moving pictures—but he mysteriously disappeared in 1890, and his fate is still unknown.

One of the great mysteries of cinema history didn’t take place on the big screen, but—somewhat sensationally—occurred off-camera at the very beginning of the story of the moving image.

The tale of Louis Le Prince, the man regarded as the father of cinematography, ended in rather peculiar circumstances which have yet to be resolved. But for movie lovers everywhere, it’s his achievements in the last few years of his life which have granted him a place in the history books.

While Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers dominated the headlines for inventing the equipment which made the moving image possible, Louis Le Prince preceded them by a number of years with a working model which captured motion outside his home in Roundhay, Leeds.

However, his achievements were not widely recognised—because shortly before a scheduled public performance of his technology, Le Prince went missing with no clues as to his whereabouts.

Many people have since speculated on his fate (with theories ranging from suicide to murder by rival cinematographers), but the one undisputed fact is that Le Prince was the first past the post with his pioneering work in the medium which would ultimately become film.

Louis Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841 and had the fortune during his youth of regularly visiting a studio belonging to a friend of his father—the photographic inventor Jacques Daguerre.

After studying chemistry and physics at university, Le Prince moved to England at the invitation of John Whitley, before establishing the Leeds Technical School of Art where he specialised in tinting and firing of photographic images.

Le Prince 16-lens camera (interior), 1886, Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince © National Media Museum / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Le Prince 16-lens camera (interior), 1886, Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince © Science Museum Group collection

During the 1880s, Le Prince became fascinated with the early cinematic technologies which were then being developed. 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, currently on display in our Animation Gallery, is believed to be the equipment used to film the famous Roundhay Garden and Leeds Bridge scenes. It proved to be one of the most groundbreaking inventions of early cinema.

Single-lens camera, 1888, Louis Le Prince
Le Prince single-lens camera, 1888, Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince © Science Museum Group collection

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, his disappearance meant that the world’s first movie maker never got the chance to accept the plaudits that came with such an achievement during his lifetime. He has since been posthumously rewarded his rightful status as the ‘Father of Cinematography’.

The first successful moving images in the world were recorded in Yorkshire, and it’s fitting that the equipment used to create them now lives here in Bradford, the world’s first UNESCO City of Film.

14 comments on “The mystery of Louis Le Prince, the father of cinematography

    1. WOW IAM 53 YRS OLD AND I HAVE JUST BECOME AWARE OF LE PRINCE ? SURELY MORE SHOULD BE DONE TO MAKE FUTURE GENERATIONS AWARE OF “LOUIS LE PRINCE ” ???

  1. This is why we are making a feature length documentary THE FIRST FILM to rectify this fact !

    1. You weren’t the first with that; back in the previous century, Christopher Rawlence made a film (and subsequent book) in 1989 about Le Prince titled THE MISSING REEL. It was made for the UK’s Channel Four and while not widely distributed, I would have thought you’d have come across it in your researches.

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  6. Theories abound. As I remember from The Last Reel, Le Prince got on a train and disappeared on his way to the demonstration which might have made his fortune.
    William Friese-Greene was also working at this time. He made his own celluloid film which he used with his second camera in January 1889, shooting in presumed stereo vision with a double lens, at twelve frames per second. It did not project well. By June he had achieved persistence of vision at sixteen frames per second with his third single lens camera, using cut down 72mm Eastman Brownie preloaded box camera film, [thus 35mm]. By 1890 his films were being shown in London.
    I like to think that if Le Prince came through London on his way home, he encountered Friese-Greene’s work and realised that he had lost a march and that his machine was obsolete. Perhaps he could not face a perceived disgrace and decided to get off the train at some little country station and retire to a small market town where he was not known. Who knows? Maybe one day his last camera will be found in the attic of an old dwelling, and then we may know. Until then….

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