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Louis Le Prince

Louis Le Prince
Louis Le Prince, inventor of motion picture film
Born Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince
(1841-08-28)28 August 1841
Metz, France
Disappeared 16 September 1890 (aged 49)
Dijon, France
Status Declared dead
Occupation Chemist, engineer, inventor, filmmaker
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Le Prince-Whitley (m. 1869–90)
For the composer, see Louis Le Prince (composer).

Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince (28 August 1841 – vanished 16 September 1890) was an inventor who shot the first moving pictures on paper film using a single lens camera.[1][2] He has been heralded as the "Father of Cinematography" since 1930.[3]

A Frenchman who also worked in the United Kingdom and the United States, Le Prince conducted his ground-breaking work in 1888 in the city of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England.

In October 1888, Le Prince filmed moving picture sequences Roundhay Garden Scene and a Leeds Bridge street scene using his single-lens camera and Eastman's paper film.[4] These were several years before the work of competing inventors such as Auguste and Louis Lumière and Thomas Edison.

He was never able to perform a planned public demonstration in the United States because he mysteriously vanished from a train on 16 September 1890.[1] His body and luggage were never found, but, over a century later, a police archive was found to contain a photograph of a drowned man who could have been him.[4] Not long after Le Prince's disappearance, Thomas Edison tried to take credit for the invention. But Le Prince’s widow and son, Adolphe, were keen to advance his cause as the inventor of cinematography. In 1898 Adolphe appeared as a witness for the defence in a court case brought by Edison against the American Mutoscope Company, claiming that Edison was the first and sole inventor of cinematography (and thus entitled to royalties for the use of the process). He was not allowed to present the two cameras as evidence (and so establish Le Prince’s prior claim as inventor) and eventually the court ruled in favour of Edison; a year later that ruling was overturned.[5]

Forgotten inventor of motion pictures

The early history of motion pictures in the United States and Europe is marked by battles over patents of cameras. In 1888 Le Prince was granted an American dual-patent on a 16-lens device that combined a motion picture camera with a projector. A patent for a single-lens type (MkI) was refused in America because of an interfering patent, yet a few years later the same patent[further explanation needed] was not opposed when the American Thomas Edison applied for one.

60mm film spools used by Le Prince on his 1888 single-lens camera-projector MkII (1930 Science Museum, London)

On October 14, 1888, Le Prince used an updated version (MkII) of his single-lens camera to film Roundhay Garden Scene. He exhibited his first films in the Whitley factory in Hunslet, Leeds and in Oakwood Grange, the Whitley family home in Roundhay, Leeds, but they were not distributed to the general public.

The following year, he took French-American dual citizenship in order to establish himself with his family in New York City and to follow up his research. However, he was never able to perform his planned public exhibition at Jumel Mansion, New York, in September 1890, due to his mysterious disappearance. Consequently, Le Prince's contribution to the birth of the cinema has often been overlooked.


Childhood and school

Le Prince was born on Saint-Georges street in Metz, France, on 28 August 1841.[1][6][7] His father was a major of artillery in the French Army[8] and an officer of the Légion d'honneur. He grew up spending time in the studio of his father's friend, the photography pioneer Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre,[8] from whom the young Le Prince received lessons relating to photography and chemistry[citation needed] and for whom he was the subject of a Daguerrotype,[citation needed] an early type of photograph. His education went on to include the study of painting in Paris and post-graduate chemistry at Leipzig University,[8] which provided him with the academic knowledge he was to utilise in the future.


He moved to Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK in 1866, after being invited to join John Whitley,[1] a friend from college, in Whitley Partners of Hunslet,[9] a firm of brass founders making valves and components. In 1869 he married Elizabeth Whitley, John's sister[1] and a talented artist. The couple started a school of applied art, the Leeds Technical School of Art, in 1871, and became well renowned for their work in fixing colour photography on to metal and pottery, leading to them being commissioned for portraits of Queen Victoria and the long-serving Prime Minister William Gladstone produced in this way; these were included alongside other mementos of the time in a time capsule—manufactured by Whitley Partners of Hunslet—which was placed in the foundations of Cleopatra's Needle on the embankment of the River Thames.[citation needed]

In 1881 Le Prince went to the United States[8] as an agent for Whitley Partners, staying in the country along with his family once his contract had ended.[citation needed] He became the manager for a small group of French artists who produced large panoramas, usually of famous battles, that were exhibited in New York City, Washington DC and Chicago.[8][9] During this time he continued the experiments he had begun, relating to the production of 'moving' photographs and to find the best material for film stock.

During his time in the US, Le Prince built a camera that utilised sixteen lenses,[9] which was the first invention he patented. Although the camera was capable of 'capturing' motion, it wasn't a complete success because each lens photographed the subject from a slightly different viewpoint and thus the projected image jumped about.

After his return to Leeds in May 1887,[9] Le Prince built and then patented, a single-lens camera. It was first used on 14 October 1888 to shoot what would become known as Roundhay Garden Scene, the world's first motion picture. Le Prince later used it to shoot trams and the horse-drawn and pedestrian traffic crossing Leeds Bridge (the film was shot from Hicks the Ironmongers, now the British Waterways building, a building on the south east side of the bridge,[1] a blue plaque marks the spot). These pictures were soon projected on a screen in Leeds, making it the first motion picture exhibition.

Suspicious disappearance

In September 1890, Le Prince was preparing to go back to the UK to patent his new camera, to be followed by a trip to the US to promote it. Before his journey, he decided to return home and visit friends and family. Having done so, he left Bourges on 13 September to visit his brother in Dijon. He would then take the 16 September train to Paris, but when the train arrived, his friends discovered that Le Prince was not on board.[10] He was never seen again by his family or friends.[1] No luggage or corpse was found in the Dijon-Paris express, nor along the railway. No one saw Le Prince at the Dijon station, except his brother. No one saw Le Prince in the Dijon–Paris express after he was seen boarding it. No one noticed any strange behaviour or aggression in the Dijon-Paris express.[10]

The French police, Scotland Yard and the family undertook exhaustive searches but never found his body or luggage. This mysterious disappearance case was never solved. Four main theories have been proposed:

  1. Perfect suicide:
    The grandson of Le Prince's brother told film historian Georges Potonniée that Le Prince wanted to commit suicide because he was on the verge of bankruptcy. He had already arranged his suicide and he managed for his own body and belongings never to be found. However, Potonniée noted that Le Prince's business was profitable and that he was proud of his inventions, and thus had no reason to commit suicide.[11]
  2. Patent Wars assassination, "Equity 6928":
    Christopher Rawlence pursues the assassination theory, along with other theories, and discusses the Le Prince family's suspicions of Edison over patents (the Equity 6928) in his 1990 book and documentary The Missing Reel. At the time that he vanished, Le Prince was about to patent his 1889 projector in the UK and then leave Europe for his scheduled New York official exhibition. His widow assumed foul play though no concrete evidence has ever emerged and Rawlence prefers the suicide theory. In 1898, Le Prince's elder son Adolphe, who had assisted his father in many of his experiments, was called as a witness for the American Mutoscope Company in their litigation with Edison [Equity 6928]. By citing Le Prince's achievements, Mutoscope hoped to annul Edison's subsequent claims to have invented the moving-picture camera. Le Prince's widow Lizzie and Adolphe hoped that this would gain recognition for Le Prince's achievement, but when the case went against Mutoscope their hopes were dashed. Two years later Adolphe Le Prince was found dead while out duck shooting on Fire Island near New York.[12]
  3. Disappearance ordered by the family:
    In 1966, Jacques Deslandes proposed a theory in Histoire comparée du cinéma, claiming that Le Prince voluntarily disappeared due to financial reasons (already shown to be false) and "familial conveniences". Journalist Léo Sauvage backed up that assertion, quoting a note shown to him by Pierre Gras, director of the Dijon municipal library, in 1977, that claimed Le Prince died in Chicago in 1898, having moved there at the family's request because he was homosexual. There is no evidence to suggest that Le Prince was gay, however.[13]
  4. Fratricide, murder for money:
    In 1967, Jean Mitry proposed, in Histoire du cinéma, that Le Prince was killed. Mitry notes that if Le Prince truly wanted to disappear, he could have done so at any time prior to that. Thus, most likely he never even boarded the train in Dijon. He also questions that if the brother, who was confirmed to be the last person to see Le Prince alive, knew Le Prince was suicidal, why didn't he try to stop him, and why didn't he report this to the police before it was too late?[14]

Le Prince was officially declared dead in 1897.[15] A photograph of a drowning victim from 1890 resembling Le Prince was discovered in 2003 during research in the Paris police archives.[8]


Decisive meetings

Late recognition

Le Prince is considered by many film historians[16] as the true father of motion pictures.[17]

Even though Le Prince's solo achievement is unchallenged, except for advocates of William Friese-Greene, his work was long forgotten; he disappeared on the eve of the first public demonstration of the result of years of toil in his Leeds workshop and tests conducted at the New York Institute for the Deaf. Despite his pursuit of trademarks over in the United States, the dominance and influence of his rival Thomas Edison, founder of the oligopolistic Edison Trust, became unstoppable.

For the April 1894 commercial exploitation of his personal kinetoscope Parlor, Thomas Edison is credited in the US as the inventor of cinema, while in France, the Lumière Brothers are hailed as inventors of the Cinématographe device and for the first commercial exploitation of motion picture films, in Paris in 1895. Like Le Prince, another untold proto-cinema figure is the French inventor, Léon Bouly, who created the first "Cinématographe" device and patented it in 1892 (Patent N°219,350). He was never credited, as two years later his patent, which he had left unpaid, was bought by the Lumière Brothers (Patent N°245,032).

However, in Leeds, West Yorkshire, in the UK, Le Prince is celebrated as a local hero. On 12 December 1930, the Lord Mayor of Leeds unveiled a bronze memorial tablet at 160 Woodhouse Lane (then Auto Express Engineering Company), Le Prince's workshop. In 2003, the University's Centre for Cinema, Photography and Television was named in his honour. Le Prince's workshop in Woodhouse Lane was until recently the site of the BBC in Leeds. The former Blenheim Baptist chapel, at the junction of Woodhouse Lane and Blackman Lane, is next to the site. (coordinates: 53°48′20.58″N 1°32′56.74″W / 53.8057167°N 1.5490944°W / 53.8057167; -1.5490944{{#coordinates:53|48|20.58|N|1|32|56.74|W|region:GB_type:landmark | |name= }}). His historic moving pictures are shown in the cinema of the Armley Mills Industrial Museum, Leeds.

In France, an appreciation society was created as L'Association des Amis de Le Prince (Association of Le Prince's Friends) which still exists in Lyon.

In 1990, Christopher Rawlence wrote The Missing Reel, The Untold Story of the Lost inventor of Moving Pictures and produced the TV programme The Missing Reel (1989) for Channel Four, a dramatised feature on the life of Le Prince.

In 1992, the Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) directed Talking Head, an avant-garde feature film paying tribute to the cinematography history's tragic ending figures such as George Eastman, Georges Méliès and Louis Le Prince who is credited as "the true inventor of eiga", Japanese for "motion picture film".

In 2013, a feature documentary, The First Film, on the life and inventions of Le Prince is being produced, with new research material and documentation on the life of Le Prince and his patents. Produced by David Wilkinson from Guerilla Films/Leeds (GB), that film has been shot in England, France and the United States. (Association des Amis d'Augustin Leprince).

LePrince Cine Camera-Projector types

Model Specs Design Manufacture Patents
Courtesy of the "National Museum of Photography, Film & Television", Bradford
LPCC Type-16
Patent: "Method of, and apparatus for,
producing animated pictures."
Designation: LePrince 16-lens camera, designated by him as "receiver"
Framerate: 16 frame/s
Film: Eastman Kodak paper film 1885
1886, New York Made in Paris, 1887 US Patent No.376,247/217,809
2 November 1886
10 January 1888
LPCCP Type-1 MkI Patent: "Method and Apparatus for
the projection of Animated Pictures in view of the adaptation to Operatic Scenes"
Designation: LePrince single-lens camera MkI, designated by him as "receiver"
Framerate: 10–12 frame/s
1886, New York Made in Leeds, 1887 UK Patents
2 November 1886
10 January 1888
10 January 1888
16 November 1888
11 January 1888
June 1890
Patent: "Method and Apparatus for
the projection of Animated Pictures in view of the adaptation to Operatic Scenes"
Designation: LePrince single-lens camera MkII, designated by him as "receiver"
Framerate: 20 frame/s (adjustable)
Lenses: Viewfinder (upper) & Photograph (lower)
Film: sensitised paper film & gelatin stripping film (Script error: No such module "convert".
Focus: lever (backward/forward)
1888 *Frederic Mason
*James W. Langley (metal parts)
Made in Leeds, 1888
FR Patent No.188,089
10 January 1888
16 November 1888
11 January 1888
June 1890
LPP Type-3 3-lens projector, designated by him as "deliverer"

Le Prince's legacy

Remaining material and production

Le Prince developed his single-lens type camera in a workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds. An updated version of this model was used to direct his motion-picture films. Remaining surviving production consists of a scene in the garden at Oakwood Grange (his wife's family home, in Roundhay), another at Leeds Bridge and an Accordion Player.

These world's first motion picture films no longer exist, as Le Prince's body and effects disappeared two years later, but parts of the original paper film strips remaining in the camera (Mark II) were found[citation needed] and exploited later.

Half a century later, Le Prince's daughter, Marie, gave the remaining apparatus to the National Science Museum, London (it's now in the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (NMPFT), Bradford, which opened in 1983 and in 2006 was renamed the National Media Museum). In May 1931, photographic plates were produced by workers of the Science Museum from paper print copies provided by Marie Le Prince.[2] In 1999, the copies were restored, remastered and re-animated to produce a digital version which was uploaded on to the NMPFT website as public resources ("Roundhay" at the Wayback Machine (archived March 16, 2007) and "Leeds"). These versions are running at the modern cinématographe 24 frames per second (frame/s) rate (Roundhay Garden at 24.64 frame/s and Leeds Bridge at 23.50 frame/s), but Le Prince used the frame-rate adjust device built into his apparatus to test various speeds. According to Adolphe Le Prince, who assisted his father at Leeds, Roundhay Garden is believed to have been shot at 12 frame/s and Leeds Bridge at 20 frame/s.[18]

Since the NMPFT release, various names are used to designate the untitled films, such as "Leeds Bridge" or "Roundhay Garden Scene". Actually, all current online versions (e.g., GIF, FLV, SWF, OGG, WMV, etc.) are derived from the NMPFT files, and these tentative titles are not canon to Le Prince whose mother tongue was French. However, "Leeds Bridge" is believed to be the original title, as the traffic sequence was referred to as such by Frederick Mason, one of Le Prince's mechanics.

Man Walking Around A Corner (LPCC Type-16)

The last remaining production of Le Prince's 16-lens camera is a frame sequence of a man walking around a corner. It is believed to have been shot with the 16-lens type but this is unsure as it appears as though it has been made with a single glass plate, not an Eastman American film. Pfend Jacques, a French cinema-historian and Le Prince specialist, confirms that those images where shot in Paris, at the corner of Rue Bochard de Saron (where Le Prince was living) and the corner with Avenue Trudaine because Le Prince who was in Leeds at that time, sent the images to his wife in New York City in a letter dated 18 August 1887. It is a part of a gelatine film shot in 32 im/s.

An amateur remastering of all 16 frames is here on YouTube. The individual frames used are here on Flickr.

Roundhay Garden Scene (LPCCP Type-1 MkII)

Main article: Roundhay Garden Scene

The 1931 National Science Museum copy of the remaining film sequence shot in Roundhay garden features 20 frames (run time 1.66 seconds at 12 frame/s). The digital version produced by the NMPFT has 52 frames (run time 2.11 seconds at 24.64 frame/s) and switches the left side and the right side, since the house is actually incorrectly shown on the right-hand side of the scene in the 1931 copy. It is believed to have been mirrored because of paper parts stuck on the left side of the film that would reduce the visibility. The reason is both physiologic and cultural—a Western viewer's eyes are used to automatically watch from top left to right, this reflex action comes from the reading direction taught in childhood. The garden sequence film's damaged side results in distortion and deformation on the inverted, right side of the digital movie. The scene was shot in Le Prince's father-in-law's garden at Oakwood Grange, Roundhay on October 14, 1888.

Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (LPCCP Type-1 MkII)

Louis Le Prince filmed traffic crossing Leeds Bridge from Hicks the Ironmongers[1] at these coordinates: 53°47′37.70″N 1°32′29.18″W / 53.7938056°N 1.5414389°W / 53.7938056; -1.5414389{{#coordinates:53|47|37.70|N|1|32|29.18|W|region:GB_type:landmark | |name= }}.[19]

The earliest frames copy belongs to the 1923 NMPFT inventory (frames 118-120 and 122-124), though a larger sequence comes from the 1931 inventory (frames 110–129). Digital footage produced by the NMPFT has 65 frames (run time 2.76 seconds at 23.50 frame/s) although the original Leeds Bridge film of 20 frames was shot by Le Prince's camera at 20 frame/s on a 60 mm film, according to Adolphe Le Prince who assisted his father when this film was shot in late October 1888.

Accordion Player (LPCCP Type-1 MkII)

File:The Accordion 2 fps.ogv
2 frames per second amateur remastering of all 19 frames; 10 frames per second version

The last remaining film of Le Prince's single-lens camera is a sequence of frames of Adolphe Le Prince playing a diatonic button accordion. It was recorded on the steps of the house of Joseph Whitley, Adolphe's grandfather.[2] The recording date is probably 1888. The NMPFT has not remastered this film. An amateur remastering of the first 17 frames is here on YouTube.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h BBC Education – Local Heroes Le Prince Biography at the Wayback Machine (archived November 28, 1999), BBC, archived on 1999-11-28
  2. ^ a b c Howells, Richard (Summer 2006). "Louis Le Prince: the body of evidence". Screen (Oxford, UK: Oxford Journals) 47 (2): 179–200. doi:10.1093/screen/hjl015. Retrieved 2009-04-16. 
  3. ^ THE "FATHER" OF KINEMATOGRAPHY: LEEDS MEMORIAL PIONEER WORK IN ENGLAND Our Special Correspondent. The Manchester Guardian (1901–1959), Manchester, England 13 Dec 1930: 19.
  4. ^ a b "Pioneers of Early Cinema: 1, AIMÉ AUGUSTIN LE PRINCE (1841-1890?)" (PDF). p. 2. Retrieved 2012-11-25. he developed a single-lens camera which he used to make moving picture sequences at the Whitley family home in Roundhay and of Leeds Bridge in October 1888. ... it has been claimed that a photograph of a drowned man in the Paris police archives is that of Le Prince. 
  5. ^ "Pioneers of Early Cinema: Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince (1841-1890?)" (PDF). National Media Museum. June 2011. Retrieved 2014-08-02. 
  6. ^ [1] The birth certificate mentions "born August on the 28th, 1841 at 5am. The common mistake of making him born in 1842 comes from an article of Ernest Kilburn Scott, mistake made since then in numerous articles, including the one by Simon Popple
  7. ^ 1842 is given by these sources: [2] Archived November 28, 1999 at the Wayback Machine [3]
  8. ^ a b c d e f Herbert, Stephen. "Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince". Who's Who of Victorian Cinema. Retrieved 2006-08-26. 
  9. ^ a b c d Adventures in CyberSound: Le Prince, Louis Aimé Augustin, Dr Russell Naughton (using source: Michael Harvey, NMPFT Pioneers of Early Cinema: 1. Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince)
  10. ^ a b Irénée Dembowski (1995). "La naissance du cinéma : cent sept ans et un crime...". Alliage, numéro 22, 1995 (in French) (22). Retrieved 2008-10-14. 
  11. ^ Dembowski (1995): "1928, Georges Potonniée avance une autre hypothèse ... – Augustin Le Prince s'est suicidé. Il était au seuil de la faillite."
  12. ^ Burns, Paul. "The History of the Discovery of Cinematography".  – "After his disappearance, the Le Prince family led by his wife and son went to court against Edison in what became known as Equity 6928. The famous Patent Wars ensued and by 1908 Thomas Edison was regarded as sole inventor of motion pictures, in the US at least. However, in 1902, two years after Le Prince’s son Adolphe had testified in the suit, he was found shot dead on Fire Island, New York."
  13. ^ Demboswki (1995): "Pierre Gras, conservateur en chef de la Bibliothèque publique de Dijon, en 1977, montra à Léo Sauvage une note (il la cite dans son ouvrage), prise lors de la visite d'un historien connu (il a tu son nom) qui avait déclaré : – Le Prince est mort à Chicago en 1898, disparition volontaire exigée par la famille. Homosexualité. Disons clairement qu'il n'y a pas l'ombre d'une preuve à l'appui d'une telle assertion."
  14. ^ Dembowski (1995): "S'il en était ainsi, pourquoi n'a-t-il rien fait pour l'empêcher de réaliser son funeste projet, pourquoi n'a-t-il pas averti la police à temps?"
  15. ^ Hannavy, John, ed. (2008). Encyclopedia of nineteenth-century photography 1. CRC Press. p. 837. ISBN 978-0-415-97235-2. 
  16. ^ Historians such as Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon, Christopher Rawlence and others
  17. ^ Rausch, Andrew (2004). Turning Points In Film History. Citadel Press. ISBN 978-0-8065-2592-1. 
  18. ^ "Cinematography". National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. Archived from the original on 2006-07-11. Retrieved 2009-04-16. 
  19. ^ Google Earth Community: First Moving Pictures


  • The facts concerning the life and death of LOUIS AIME AUGUSTIN LEPRINCE, pioneer of the moving pîcture and his family, by Jacques Pfend (Sarreguemines/57200/France) 2014.

External links


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