The Disappearance of Louis Le Prince

By Brett Barnett · Last Updated 2 years ago

Of all the early photographic technologies, perhaps the most well-known is the daguerrotype, a method where a silver-coated copper sheet is applied to a mirrored surface and treated to make it light sensitive.

By exposing this plate to focussed light, an image would be created. It wasn’t perfect, it was a reflective image that could appear positive or negative depending on how it was held.

The technology would be replaced by more advanced technologies, but it remains to this day one of the most famous early forays into capturing light on the page, so to speak.

The technology is named after Louis Daguerre, its creator, and perhaps this is why Daguerre is remembered so well. But in reality, the creation of photography wasn’t a clear, linear narrative, but a scattered collection of independent discoveries and creations.

One such early pioneer was Nicéphore Niépce, who created a rudimentary process called heliography and used it between 1926 and 1927 to create View from the Window at Le Gras, the earliest known photograph.

This early work inspired Daguerre when he was put in touch with Niépce and the two began to correspond. Daguerre had already developed an interest in the idea of photography after experimenting with camera obscura, a phenomenon where a dark room contains a small hole in the wall which acts like a lens, projecting an image of the outside world onto the wall of the room.

Daguerre saw the potential to turn this into a permanent photographic process, but Niépce was hesitant to discuss his methods and the two eventually began to discuss their work through a secret code.

The two would eventually work together in an official capacity, having drawn up a contract. When Niépce died in 1933, the rights to his work were inherited by his son, Isador, who was not himself interested in the creations, but saw their potential and was happy to draw up a new agreement with Daguerre.

Part of this new contract was an agreement that any new technologies Daguerre developed would bear solely his name, and it’s perhaps this moment in time that sealed Daguerre’s place in history, while Niépce’s would be lost to time for all but the most ardent of photography historians.

Daguerre made great progress as he continued his work alone, revisiting the silver halide methods that Niécpe had previously abandoned and developing the Daguerrotype process, allowing a sharp, clear image to be exposed in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

Boulevard du Temple

One notable product of Daguerre’s experiments is View of the Boulebard du Temple, a Daguerrotype photograph of a busy street in Paris. As a result of the slow exposure time of the Daguerrotype, the busy street appears abandoned, as though Paris has been rendered a ghost town.

In the bottom left corner, though, are two clear figures: a shoe shiner, and his customer. As the only two people stood in the same spot long enough to be captured in the image, these two stranger, completely unknown to them, became the first humans to be photographed.

The secrecy with which they conducted their experiments shows that Daguerre and Niécpe were both leaps and bounds ahead of their time and were the only men who could see the potential this budding technology possessed.

Or were they?

Daguerre’s technology was announced to the world on January 7th, 1839, and the news spread quickly around the globe, triggering a wave of claims that others had already invented similar technologies.

In Brazil, Hercules Florence had begun working on a similar technology in 1932. In France, Hippolyte Bayard invented a different process for creating photographic prints and claimed to have completed this before Daguerre. In Britain, William Fox Talbot created his own photographic process which printed the image on a negative, allowing endless copies of the image to be produced, a method that remains the basis of photography to this day.

Also in Britain, John Herschel had been experimenting with photography since at least the 1810s and used his knowledge to improve on Daguerre’s process.

Yet despite this numerous contributions, many of which seem to have sprung up independently of one another, it’s Daguerre’s name that lives on while the others remain less known, a perfect example of the importance of the first mover advantage.

Daguerre would go on to produce many portrait photographs with his Daguerrotype process, including one subject named Louis Aimé Augustin le Prince, a son of Daguerre’s friend.

Le Prince would go on to spend much time at Daguerre’s studio as Daguerre became somewhat of a mentor to him, providing him with lessons in photography and chemistry. Le Prince would go on to study painting in Paris and chemistry in Germany.

Armed the technical know-how of a chemistry degree, the first-hand knowledge of his time with the father of photography, and the artistic appreciation of capturing life in paint, Louis le Prince had everything he would need to change the world forever. But instead, he would find himself reliving the very situation Daguerre himself had been caught in almost fifty years prior.

At the invitation of his friend John Whitley, Le Prince moved to Leeds in the north of England in 1866 where, three years later, he would marry John’s sister, Elizabeth Whitley. Elizabeth also had a background in painting and was a talented artist, and together the two created the Leeds Technical School of Art.

In 1881, the family moved to the United States, where Le Prince became the manager for a group of artists which produced large panaramic paintings of historic scenes for exhibition in large cities across the country.

It was around this time that Le Prince began his experiments in pushing the medium of photography even further by attempting to create the first moving image.

Le Prince patented his first attempt, a large device capable of capturing a 16-frame moving image. The invention was more of a hack than a new creation, though, as it used sixteen separate lenses to take 16 individual photographs.

While this trick feels uncannily familiar in a time when we walk around with three or more lenses stuck to our phones, it simply wasn’t a suitable way to shoot motion.

Le Prince hadn’t figured out a way to project or display his images, but if he had, the quality of his films would have been negatively affected by the shifting perspective caused by his sixteen individual lenses.

This problem can be seen in the final product as Le Prince’s early attempt, Man Walking Around a Corner, survives to this day. It isn’t generally considered the first film, but a collection of sixteen rapid photographs. We can, however, piece them together to see how they look in motion.

The final product is less than a second long and the buildings in shot seem to warp backwards and forwards as a result of the variable viewpoint. But the clip does indeed give us a clear moving image of a man walking around a corner in 1887. It might not be the first film by most standards, but it’s the first of what we today would call a GIF.

Le Prince continued his work and after returning to Leeds in 1887, he succeeded in developing a single-lens camera.

On October 14th, 1888, Le Prince used his invention to record a film of less than two seconds. The Roundhay Garden Scene was shot at the home of Le Prince’s in-laws, Sarah and Joseph Whitley and features the pair, as well as family friend Annie Hartley and Le Prince’s son, Adolphe.

According to Adolphe, the film was shot at 12 frames per second, for a run time of a little over a minute and a half for the film’s 20 frames. Analysis of the film, however, suggests a frame rate of 7 frames per second, which would bring the film to almost three seconds long.

The clip features its stars walking casually around the garden and through modern eyes, it’s hardly impressive. But this was the first time that movement had been clearly captured in any medium, the first time any human being had been recorded in motion.

When you cast your mind back to the context of the time, a time when the invention of the photograph remains living memory, it’s easy to see what Le Prince himself must have seen: the momentous nature of his invention, a turning point in technology, and something that he had to pursue at all costs.

In September 1890, Le Prince was due to travel to the United States, reportedly to showcase his work publicly. The family travelled ahead of him and Le Prince opted to first visit his brother, Albert, in Dijon.

On September 16th, Le Prince was due to board a train back to Paris, where he was due to meet friends. When the train arrived, however, Le Prince was not on board.

Unbeknownst to his friends, Le Prince had missed his train. Instead be boarded the next one, which would arrive in Paris slightly later, at 11pm.

And so, at Dijon station, Albert Le Prince said farewell to his brother as he boarded the train that would carry him to the capital. It would be the last time Albert saw his brother—it was the last time anyone would.

Louis Le Prince in his youth

Discussion about Le Prince’s disappearance usually boils down to four core theories, all of which, sadly, assume that his story ended in death.

The first places responsibility for his death on his brother, Albert. The pair’s mother had died in 1887, leaving behind an inheritance, and according to this theory, Le Prince was still owed a substantial sum from this. A sum which Albert never intended to provide.

In one sense, this theory works. After all, Albert was the last person to see Le Prince alive and if we look at this theory from the point of view of Occam’s Razor—that the solution which requires the least assumptions is the most likely—this theory does look good.

After all, if we assume that Albert lied about seeing Le Prince off at the station, then his disappearance is wholly explained—in that he didn’t disappear at all, but died in Dijon by Albert’s hand.

However, this leaves the circumstances of his death wide open. Anything could have happened, in any place, at almost any time, and there’s no evidence to point to any of it.

Additionally, there is no clear motive. While there may very well have been disputes over the inheritence, Albert was said to be doing well financially and not in the kind of perilous financial position that might drive him to murder.

There are also surviving letters between the pair that remain with the family and due to their closeness and friendliness in these letters, surviving members of the Le Prince family have argued against this theory.

The second theory is that Le Prince disembarked the train either in Paris or at an earlier stop, and took his own life.

Again, though, this theory relies on the fact that it’s technically possible, while having no actual evidence to suggest that it may have happened.

Le Prince had no reported history of mental health problems and was said to have a very happy, loving life. His career was going well and he was about to unveil the invention that might put his name in the history books forever.

A piece of evidence that is sometimes used to back up this theory is a photograph discovered in the archives of the Paris police in 2003 which shows the body of a drowned man pulled from the Seine in 1890 which was said to bear a resemblence to Le Prince.

The resemblence is just that, though. There was no confirmed ID of the body and the death certificate recorded the John Doe’s height as being substantially shorter than Le Prince’s notable 6’ 4” frame.

With this theory, it’s also worth considered the patent law that Le Prince, having previously patented his 16-lens camera, would be familiar with. Due to Le Prince’s disappearance, his family were not able to gain control of his patents until seven years had elapsed. With multiple people seeking to create a motion picture camera simultaneously, Le Prince’s first-mover advantage was what put him ahead of his competition. Unable to use his patent for the better part of a decade, the family were robbed of the ability to take advantage of this.

Would Le Prince, who would likely have known this outcome, have taken his own life in such a way? A different method, or even a note explaining his actions, may have led to his death being confirmed much earlier, freeing up the patent for the family’s use and ensuring their financial prosperity and historical significance. From everything we know of Le Prince, it seems reasonable to assume that this is the outcome he would want.

Someone in the mental state to be ending their own life, of course, is not always in the best frame of mind to be thinking through things like this, but it is nonetheless a good reason to be skeptical of this particular theory.

The third theory suggests that Le Prince, having successfully arrived in London, was the victim of a random robbery which ended in his murder.

If he did make it to France, Le Prince would have arrived at around 11pm and there were warning at the time from police that thieves were taking advantage of lone travellers.

While there is, once again, no evidence to point specifically to this theory, it is worth remembering that a random robbery would leave little evidence, especially in 1890 before the widespread ability to test for DNA or fingerprints.

On the other hand, though, you might expect a robbery to leave one very key piece of evidence: the body.

In order for this theory to be plausable, it would require that after murdering Le Prince, the thieves disposed of his body, likely in the Seine.

Is this likely? How many thieves would it take? How far might they have been from the river?

Given the almost impossible task of finding the culprit of such a crime, it seems to me that the random attackers would merely have killed Le Prince, taken his belongings and fled, leaving behind an identifiable body.

Our fourth and final theory is perhaps the biggest and most widely-known, as well as being the favored theory of Le Prince’s own wife.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison is remembered as a prolific inventor, but in reality, many of his creations were collaborations or work for hire.

One such invention was the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera patented by Edison and developed by his employee, William Kennedy Dickson.

The device used the same method of rolling film previously patented by Le Prince to capture a sequence of movement on celluloid film. These could then be played back on another Edison device, the Kinetoscope.

Edison had labelled film projection as a financially unviable direction for the technology and the Kinetoscope was his vision for how people would interact with the new phenomenon of motion pictures.

The device consists of one large box inside of which a reel of film was stored, not in a roll but as one long, continuous strip that looped back and forth from the top of the machine to the bottom.

A small light at the top of the device would shine through the film and out of a peephole on the top, through which the viewer would look. When the film was wound through the machine, it would create the illusion of movement.

In basic function, this is really no different to how a film projector works, only in this case limited to one single viewer, a bit like a very large, steampunk version of a VR headset.

The prototype was fully developed by 1891, three full years after Le Prince shot his first film. By 1892, the device had been perfected. In 1893, it would premier to the world at the Brooklyn Institue of Arts and Sciences and in 1894, a Kinetoscope parlour opened in New York City, a building dedicated to displaying motion pictures and essentially the precursor to the modern movie theater.

In 1894, Dickson would team up with Herman Casler to invent and patent a similar device called the Mutoscope, which used the same basic function as the Kinetoscope, but in a much smaller and much cheaper form factor.

This led to a lawsuit in 1898 as Edison claimed that the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was infringing on his Kinetoscope patent.

A witness called in to testify in this lawsuit was Adolphe Le Prince, who used the opportunity to bring the attention to his father’s work that he thought it deserved, and Adolphe threw his energy into proving that his father was the original inventor of the motion picture.

While the Roundhay Garden Scene was clear proof that Le Prince had successfully created a motion picture camera, there were doubts about the date of the film’s creation.

Adolphe, however, was able to produce his grandmother’s death certificate. As Sarah Whitley had died just ten days after appearing in the clip, this was proof that Le Prince had been able to create a moving image no later than October of 1888.

One key problem for Adolphe family was the American patent that Le Prince had been granted for his sixteen-lens camera.

Inititally referring to a camera with one or more lenses, the patent would have covered both of Le Prince’s inventions. The US Patent Office, however, took issue with this wording. As they had previously issued a patent for a single-lens camera, they requested that Le Prince remove the phrase “one or more.”

Le Prince had argued with the patent office over this for two years, repeatedly amending the patent. The previous application that the patent office had approved was for a single-lens camera, but it had been for a still camera, a distinct device from the kind which Le Prince was attempting to protect.

Adolphe would fight the case to the end, but ultimately, the court ruled in favour of Edison, not only deciding that the Mutoscope infringed on his patent, but essentially declaring Edison to be the inventor of the motion picture.

This would not be the end of the debate, though, as a series of legal battles over this issue would continue for years, albeit without the involvement of the Le Prince family.

But how does this figure into Le Prince’s disappearance?

Work had begun on the development of the Kinetograph in 1889, a year before Le Prince vanished, and according to this theory, Edison was aware of Le Prince and of his groundbreaking work.

Knowing that Le Prince was due to arrive in the States and publicly unveil his invention and knowing that his own motion picture camera was months if not years away from completion, this theory states that Edison hired someone to have Le Prince killed, causing his name and his invention to fade from history and ensuring that Edison’s would forever be associated with the invention of film.

Again, though, there is no evidence to back up this theory. Lizzy Le Prince, however, would remain convinced that Edison had had some involvement in her husband’s death.

She would only double down on this belief in 1901, three years after the Edison lawsuit, when Adolphe would be found dead in the woods, killed by a gunshot wound, with a rifle by his side.

The death was assumed to be due to a hunting accident, but Lizzy was convinced that once again she had lost a family members at the hands of Thomas Edison.

All of these theories are possible, but all of them have several flaws, most notably the lack of evidence to point in any particular direction. And with little progress on the case after more than 130 years, it’s unlikely we will ever learn the final resting place of Louis Le Prince, or what exactly happened to the Father of Film in his final moments.

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