The Unexplained: What happened to the inventor of motion pictures?

A scene from The Roundhay Garden Scene, filmed by Louis Le Prince.

Le Prince filmed the Roundhay Garden Scene with a camera of his own invention in 1841, then later vanished off the face of the earth.

A few years back I was looking at old movies on a video site.  Something caught my eye—something quite engaging.  This tiny movie fragment was quite ancient.  I wanted to know more about it.

The film had been uploaded by a guy who—actually his name is Guy, Guy Jones.  I decided to subscribe to the YouTube channel of this Guy Jones.  I looked at some of his other uploads and they are mostly similar, very old films, or fragments of very old films, some nicely restored.

I was familiar with the names of some early moviemakers:  Melies, the Lumiere brothers, Griffith.  The cinematographer of the movie segment I was looking at was none of these people.  He was French and his name was Louis Le Prince.

His full name, Louis Aime’ Augustin Le Prince, was born in 1841.  He is the creator of the Roundhay Garden Scene.  He created it in 1888.

Sara Marie Hogg

The Roundhay Garden Scene was filmed on October 14 with a single lens.  It is classed as an actuality film—people in an activity with no story behind it.

Le Prince filmed it with a camera of his own invention in Roundhay, Leeds, England.  He was able to get a patent on his camera in November of 1888.  It shows four people performing a kind of do-si-do, but they are not dancing, they are walking on a piece of ground outside a building.

What is important about this little piece of film?  It is believed to be the oldest motion picture in existence.  That makes Le Prince the inventor of the motion picture., an honor that has tried to be claimed by several other inventors, including Thomas Edison.

Many people besides Guy Jones have now uploaded the Roundhay Garden film to YouTube.  I did not notice any activity from Guy Jones for quite a spell, but there is now an upload as recent as three months ago:  Standing in a Forgotten Room.

When Louis Le Prince was a grown man, he was described as very tall and having an unruffled demeanor.  As an artist, art teacher, and inventor, Louis dabbled in many things.   He designed several types of cameras.   He and his wife, Elizabeth started an art school in Leeds, and they developed a technique for fixing color on photographic images as applied to metal and pottery.  Some of their exquisite work went into a time capsule in Cleopatra’s needle, including portraits of Victoria and Gladstone.

Le Prince even came to America where he managed a group of talented painters from France who worked to create large panoramic paintings.  They were popular in Eastern cities.

When he returned to England for a short spell, he perfected his most recent camera inventions in a favorite workshop on Woodhouse Lane in Leeds.  He used one of these cameras to create the Roundhay Garden Scene.

And here is where the big unsolved mystery begins.  In September of 1890, Louis was going to return to his wife and children in America.  He planned to vigorously promote his camera invention and work.  He wanted to visit his brother in Dijon before making the trip across the /Atlantic.

After he visited Dijon, he boarded a train for Paris.  He was not able to board the intended train and had to take another.  Because of this, his friends missed picking him up when the train he took did arrive.  His brother in Dijon was the last known person to see Louis Le Prince.  He had disappeared off the face of the earth.

His family and Scotland Yard began intensive searches—to no avail.  He was officially declared dead in 1897 in a whirlwind of conspiracy theories.

Something odd happened in 2003.  A photograph was found in some evidence archives.  It was a picture of a man who had died in the Seine—his face had been photographed before burial.  He somewhat resembled Louis and had been pulled out of the water in1890.  The identity of the man had never been established.

The gentle, unruffled, Le Prince had unintentionally caused a lot of jealousy in the inventors’ world.   Had Louis been murdered because of his wondrous little film?

There was much speculation of that with several persons of interests mentioned—including Edison, who was determined to hold the patent on the moving pictures project he had been working on, himself.  Several inventors were working on moving pictures at the same time. Le Prince’s family always suspected foul play in the disappearance.

In 1898, a court case was brought in America by Thomas Edison.  He was suing American Mutoscope Company for sole rights to cinematography which Edison claimed he invented.  Edison was claiming all rights to royalties from any moving pictures.

American Mutoscope was the Company set up by Le Prince and some family members.  Adolph, his son, gave witness in the court case as to when Louis actually invented the camera and process.  The judge decided for Edison but the decision was overturned, later.  Edison was still somehow able to finagle control of the film industry.

Lizzie Le Prince, the wife of Louis, did everything she could to promote Louis and preserve his honor.  As a result, he is known as The Father of Cinematography.  He was absolutely the first to succeed at the creation of motion pictures—he succeeded several years before any others even got out of the gate.  These others still have tried to make the claim.

What happened to Louis?  Did he go off and commit suicide?  There are a few who think so, but it is not likely.  This idea is pretty much rejected.  Where did Louis Le Prince go?

Please click HERE to find Sara Marie Hogg’s Quite Curious, a collection of unexplained events, on Amazon. 

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