Louis Le Prince

Just a really quick one today, because I’m turning in my PhD in 9 days and my brain might explode.

Long-time readers of this blog will remember my considerable hatred of Thomas Edison, especially in light of the deep and profound love I have for Nikola Tesla. Well, I know you’ll all be surprised to hear that Edison was implicated in another shady event, namely the mysterious disappearance of Louis Le Prince, the ‘Father of Cinematography’.

Edison? Being a slimy and underhanded and maybe even murderous businessman? I am SHOCKED.
BRB, gotta go find some pearls to clutch.

RIP Le Prince (1841-???)
(unless you teamed up with Tesla and he turned you into a cyborg and you’re still alive and hiding in Thailand or something)
(that’s ridiculous–Thailand has way too damp a climate for a cyborg)


Le Prince was a French inventor who essentially made the very first films. He managed to capture moving images in the late 1880s, years before other inventors like the Lumière brothers and that scurrilous poltroon, Edison did. In fact, Le Prince had one of the first US patents on a motion picture camera, the result of which produced the world’s first (known) motion picture, Roundhay Garden Scene. It is 2 seconds long. BUT STILL.

Not long after his patent was registered, Le Prince moved to New York so he could better undertake his reserach and go on a national tour with his invention. While in France, attempting to make his way to the States via the UK, Le Prince disappeared.

On September 16, 1890, he took a train from Dijon to Paris. He was seen boarding this train. When the train arrived in Paris, he was discovered not to be on board. His luggage was also missing, and no body was ever found, although the entire train was searched, as was the railway track between Paris and Dijon. None of the passengers or staff noticed anything unusual during the trip.

He was never seen again, and the case was never solved.

There are, of course, some excellent conspiracy theories out there. Since these are only conspiracy theories, I feel no shame in copying and pasting them from Wikipedia (slightly out of order):

  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.
  2. Disappearance ordered by the family:
    In 1966, Jacques Deslandes proposed a theory in Histoire comparée du cinéma (The Comparative History of Cinema), 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.
  3. 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?

Of course, here’s where things get really interesting with Edison. Edison swooped in as soon as Le Prince went missing and pursued a court case against the American Mutoscope Company and Le Prince’s estate, saying that he, Edison, was the actual inventor of cinematography, and should therefore get all of the royalties.

Suspicious timing much?

The court initially ruled in favor of Edison, but overturned that ruling a year later. Here is the Edison conspiracy theory in full:

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.

Le Prince was officially declared dead seven years later in 1897 (as is customary with missing persons).

In 2003, a researcher was going through the Paris police archives and found a photograph of a drowning victim that strongly resembled Le Prince. It is uncomfirmed if this is him or not, but it still leaves the question: how did he get off the train, hide all of his luggage, and then end up drowned in Paris, all without being seen?

The moral of the story is, even if Edison didn’t have anything to do with Le Prince’s disappearance, he’s still a total dirtbag opportunist.

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2 Responses to Louis Le Prince

  1. Becky Black says:

    Being from Sunderland, home town of Joseph Swan, I’m naturally inclined to consider Edison a thieving bastard who nicked the credit for the incandescent light bulb from Swan. So I wouldn’t put anything past him.


  2. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 3 Years | BizarreVictoria

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