The Historic Disappearance of Louis Le Prince

The Historic Disappearance of Louis Le Prince


– This week on Buzzfeed
Unsolved we cover the mysterious disappearance
of Louis Le Prince. This is one of my favorite
cases we’ve ever covered. It’s got pretty much
everything you’d want. It’s got mystery, it’s got
history, and it’s got a train. – You’re a big train guy? – Yeah, I’m a big fan of train mysteries. They’re among my favorites. – Well, in that case, all aboard! – Alright. I’m not as excited anymore,
but let’s get into it. Any casual cinema fan
would likely tell you that Thomas Edison invented
the motion picture camera in the late 1800s. In 1888, Thomas Edison wrote,
quote, I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for
the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is
the recording and reproduction of things in motion, end quote. Being a film student myself,
I learned about Edison in film school, but what if I told
you the true father of moving pictures may actually
be a brilliant Frenchman named Louis Le Prince? You might say, well, if this were true, then why have I never heard of him? Maybe you were never supposed
to, because on one fateful afternoon, on Monday, September
16th, 1890, Louis Le Prince would step onto a train and
never be seen again, a vanishing that would essentially wipe
him from the history books. Let’s start from the beginning. Louis Le Prince was born in
the northeastern city of Metz, France, on August 28th, 1841. Louis was a student of art,
chemistry, and physics. In 1866, Louis moved to Leeds,
England, to work as an agent at a brass foundry
called Whitley Partners. In 1869, Louis married a fellow artist, Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Whitley. In 1881, Louis, Lizzie, and their children moved to New York. It’s here that Louis would
manage artists painting panoramic landscapes. These immersive paintings would
inspire Louis to create an even more immersive experience:
pictures that moved. – Interesting that that would
be the impetus for that if it was just him feeling immersed in it. – Exactly.
– And he’s like, how can I bring this up a level, you know? – And that’s how you know
he was a true artist, and that’s why I respect this man. – Yeah, I was gonna say,
this guy sounds like a real lover of film. – [Ryan] Louis began working
on moving pictures as early as 1885, inventing a camera with
16 lenses that he hoped could create what we now call movies. It’s thought that Louis began
building and testing an early version of his single-lens
camera soon after. According to Louis’s daughter,
Marie, who was a teenager at the time, she recalled
seeing her father project moving images on a wall in their
workshop as early as 1886. This was long before Thomas
Edison had even begun conceptualizing motion picture designs about two years later. In 1886, Louis applied for a
United States patent for his 16 lens camera that included
brief phrasing, allowing for a single-lens version. This process would take nearly two years. In 1887, Louis moved back to
Leeds, a move that, according to a New York Times article,
was motivated by a desire to hide out from those who might
steal his work, such as, quote, industrial spies, end
quote, as his wife Lizzie would describe them. – Could you imagine if your
dad just invented something completely unknown to the world, and you just have a memory… Like if you had a hazy
memory of your father flying around the living room? – Like a jetpack? – Yeah, if your father–
– In the living room? You said the living room. – Yeah, or if he had
hover shoes or something, he was flying and you were like– – Like the Jetsons? – I have this vague memory of my father flying around the living room. – He was vacuuming the living
room and he was doing it while levitating over the ground. – Well, because at that
point, movies weren’t a thing, so she had this memory
of this thing that was wholly unknown to the world. – Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty amazing. – [Shane] Yeah. – And then also add onto that
the layer of, but no one knows he invented it. – Mmhm. – [Ryan] In 1888, Louis built
what would be his true claim to being the father of moving
pictures: a working version of the single-lens motion picture camera. It was wooden, mahogany,
and weighed 40 pounds. It had a hand crank that
manually moved light-sensitive paper along between the lens and shutter. Here’s Toni Booth of the
National Science and Media Museum in the UK on Louis’s single-lens camera. Quote, if you look at the
mechanism that camera is using, it’s a very similar mechanism
to all the subsequent moving image cameras that came after that. It is a single roll of film
moving from one spool to another through a shutter and taking
sequential images which then were designed to be projected
to reproduce that movement. As a piece of moving image
recording live action, yes, I would say he was the first
one to do that, end quote. – [Shane] Oh, very funny, also. I feel like we don’t often pay
enough attention to the fact that we still call them movies. – [Ryan] Mmhm. – [Shane] It’s a funny word. – [Ryan] It’s a funny word, and you– – [Shane] That’s like calling
your teeth chewies or shoes– – [Ryan] Chew– – [Shane] –steppies. – Or p–
– Why not go to the movies? – Or pens, writies. – Yeah, a little writie. – When you think about it,
that’s kind of a horrible name. If someone was like, what should we call this moving picture? And if someone went, movies! – We’ll go to the movies! – [Ryan] Louis’s single-lens
camera would produce viewable films in 1888, three
of which have survived. One of these films, which you’re
seeing now, was claimed to have been shot on October 14th,
1888, showing Louis’s son, in-laws, and a friend walking around. The date of October 14th,
1888, is backed up by the fact that one of the women shown
in the film died 10 days later on October 24th, 1888. Keep in mind, Edison’s earliest
film wouldn’t even be shot until nearly three years later in 1891. – That’s a motion picture. – Yes it is, yes it is. – See? Three years earlier, he had
that, and yet, lost to time. – Footprints. – [Ryan] Though Louis had a
working camera, the problem Louis now faced was that he
needed, A, a way to show these films, and B, a more
durable material than his light-sensitive paper in
order to plan for repeated projections of his movies. He experimented and finally
landed on celluloid in 1889, which he had began using for
both shooting and projection. This eliminated many of the
problems he’d been having with his projector, such as glass
plates that kept breaking. Louis made early, unofficial
demonstrations of his device. On March 30th, 1890, Louis
projected his moving pictures at the National Opera in Paris. Ferdinand Mobisson, secretary
of the National Opera, swore in an affidavit that he had
witnessed what the projector could do and had even,
quote, made a complete study of this system, end quote. Meanwhile, Edison would
not publicly show his motion pictures until three
and a half years later. In the summer of 1890, Louis
wrote to Lizzie, who was back in New York with
the rest of the family. In the letter, Louis stated his
intent to return to New York in September, where he would
publicly and officially demonstrate his moving
pictures to the world. – [Shane] It’s just, it seems
to be going so well for him at this point. – [Ryan] I know. – [Shane] The world is his oyster. He’s on the verge of
becoming a millionare. – [Ryan] I don’t know if
there’s anything that’s more sad than feeling positive momentum
and knowing inevitably, it’s gonna lead to off a cliff. You could see the drop-off coming. – [Shane] Mmm. – At this point, Louis had
been granted patents in France and Britain that
covered his single-lens motion picture camera. However, none of the patents
were thorough enough to legally proclaim him as the
inventor of a working version. If Louis were able to publicly
demonstrate his moving pictures in New York as
planned, Louis surely would have secured his spot in history,
legally, as the inventor of the motion picture camera. As bad luck would have it, this brings us to his disappearance. At the time, Louis was
visiting his brother, Albert Le Prince, in Dijon, France. On September 16th, 1890, at
2:37 p.m., Louis Le Prince boarded a train for Paris as
part of a trip back to Leeds, where he would retrieve his
film devices, and then travel back to New York to meet his
family and show his invention. With him, Louis only
carried a black suitcase. According to Christopher
Rawlence, author of a book on the case, the suitcase contained some rather important documents. Inside the suitcase was Louis’s
latest work on his patents. At the time, Louis was still
tweaking his patents on his single-lens camera to further
protect himself from the theft of his inventions. As Frederick Mason would
remind reporters decades later, not only did Louis disappear,
but the suitcase did as well. All efforts to find Louis failed. Louis Le Prince, carrying
paperwork meant to protect his creation, boarded a train
to share his invention with the world, and vanished. Just going missing on this one
day is the difference between you and I never hearing of
him and everybody in the world knowing his name. That’s crazy. – Makes you value a day, huh? – [Ryan] Shortly after Louis’s
disappearance, a family associate would enter Louis
workshop and discover Louis’s machine safe, packed for the
journey to America, untouched. Unfortunately, in a missing
persons case, nobody, not even a spouse, is allowed to use
the missing person’s patent for seven years, meaning Louis’s
wife Lizzie would be unable to commercialize Louis’s
invention until 1897, but as mentioned before, Edison
displayed his kinetoscope movies in 1894 and projected his
films as early as April, 1896. As history would tell, Edison
would often be credited with inventing the motion picture camera, and Louis would be forgotten. – [Shane] Okay, now I have a question. – [Ryan] Jesus Christ. – [Shane] I suddenly wonder,
maybe Edison simply heard about this fanciful, inventive man– – Mhmm.
– –with his wonderful machine– – Yeah.
– –that was hands-off for seven years and it put
the idea in his head, oh, he’s clearly a capable man. – [Ryan] Edison wasn’t
inspired by Louis, though. He was inspired by imagery here. – [Shane] Well, what if
that’s just what he said? – Obviously, if you ask Edison
what inspired you, he’s not gonna be like, oh, the
guy who made it before me. – The guy I fuckin’ stole it from, duh. – Obviously, what a dumb question. And then he twirls his mustache
and backs out of the room. – Yeah. Well, I just thought if he was
aware of it, I wouldn’t put it past him to be able,
once he realizes, oh, what? You just shoot a bunch
of pictures back to back? – Yeah, reverse it.
– Project it. – Reverse engineer an idea. – [Shane] Reverse engineer it. – He was smart enough of a
guy to do that, for sure. – And he had the resources,
he had probably the knowhow, so I could see him just
essentially stealing the idea and, like you said, engineering it. – [Ryan] With that, let’s
get into the theories. The first theory is that Louis
was abducted or killed by men working for non other than Thomas Edison. This theory was held by Louis’s
wife Lizzie who believed Edison’s motive was to
stop Louis’s invention from reaching the public. The timelines certainly do match up. In 1888, Edison began to
seriously think about moving pictures, while by that time,
Louis had already successfully shot films with his single-lens camera. Behind the scenes, Thomas
Edison was said to be an egotistical genius, though a
good deal of his success was built on taking credit for
others’ ideas, such as the ideas of people that he employed. Edison had many rivals and he
even ruined some of them, but he was pretty adept at doing
so through legal battles. He frequently claimed others
were encroaching on his patents and often won these lawsuits
and used the leverage to his financial benefit. So… – [Shane] Mmm, bit cowardly. – A lot of–
– The litigious approach. – [Ryan] He made a lot of
his money off of doing this. – Oh.
– Actually, I would say a majority of his money, he
made off of just suing people. – [Shane] Scoundrel. – [Ryan] Piggybacking off
that, in 1898, Edison sued American Mutoscope and
Biograph Company on the grounds of patent infringement on his
kinetoscope motion picture camera patent. This lawsuit would ironically
bring Louis Le Prince into the spotlight, as Mutoscope would
call Louis’s son, Adolphe Le Prince, as one of its witnesses. Adolphe actually took a year
off from Columbia to travel and gather evidence to make the
case that his father invented the motion picture camera, not Edison, as Edison was claiming. According to Rawlence, Lizzie
and other family members still held onto the possibility that
Louis was being held captive, having been kidnapped in 1890,
and that once it was known in a court of law that he
was the true inventor of the motion picture camera, his
captors would let him go. – [Shane] Wait, wait, wait. Who captured him? – [Ryan] Well, they think that
Louis Le Prince was kidnapped by maybe Edison or some other
inventor, and the only reason why they were holding him
captive was because no one knew he existed, but if his name
was brought into the spotlight in this legal battle, maybe
the captors would let him go. It’s a somewhat… I think it’s a somewhat logical thought, but a very sad thought. – It’s a very sad thought,
because it sounds like they’re just… – Grasping at straws. – Yeah, it’s kind of a bummer. It’s just them–
– But it’s a big straw. – –desperately hoping that
their father is still alive. – Yeah. During the trial, Adolphe
proved the films had been made prior to October 24th, 1888,
by producing him grandmother’s death certificate, dated on
that day, as she appears in one of the films, yet this wasn’t
totally incontrovertible proof that the single-lens camera
built by Louis was the same one that took the films in 1888. When examining Louis’s patents,
the lawyers in the case focused solely on Louis’s US
patent, and sadly for Louis, this particular patent,
unlike his ones in Britain and France, was meant mainly for
his previous 16 lens camera and did not include specifications
for the single-lens camera, the camera being focused on in the trial. By bad luck, the phrase,
quote, one of more lenses, end quote, which would have covered
both of Louis’s inventions, was removed by the US Patent
Office on the grounds that they already had granted for a
single-lens camera in the past, though that particular patent
was for a still camera, not a motion picture camera like Louis’s. This omission would prove
to be disastrous in trial. – I can’t blame them for that, though. It’s something they’ve never heard of. They’re probably like, uh,
whoa, you wanna patent a camera? Oh, what are are you gonna
try and patent boots next? Get outta here with that! – I guess, but I mean, if you
just looked at the rest of the patent, it was clear that it was for a motion picture camera. – Well, maybe he should’ve–
– I’m not saying the US Patent Office was in on this, I’m just saying it’s bad luck. – I also feel like maybe he should’ve discussed it with them. – He did, for two years. – For two years? He said put that phrase back in the– – He went back and forth with
them for two years and they finally settled on it
and then he was like… I guess at that point he was
worn out and was like, fine, take out the phrase. – Well, again, that’s his fault. – I mean, you gotta get a patent. – Dug his own grave. – [Ryan] The trial would
initially go for Edison, and over the years, the trial
would go back and forth, starting the famed patent wars. As such, Adolphe’s testimony
would move out of focus and his father, Louis Le Prince,
would once again be forgotten. Perhaps tangentially related,
in 1901, 3 years after Adolphe testified, Adolphe was
found dead in the woods, bloody and broken. He had apparently been shot dead. He had been out shooting and
a gun was found by his side. It was assumed he died
of a hunting accident. Some believed it was suicide,
while some in the family believed he’d been murdered. What do you think about that? – [Shane] You know, this is
at a time in history when murders were just that. – Just that.
– Oh well. – [Ryan] He just happened
to testify in trial in one of the biggest
patent cases of all time. – Oh, I’m saying it’s very
likely he was murdered, but it doesn’t matter, because
it’s, what, the 1900 or so? 19… Who gives a shit? – One detective goes out
there with a magnifying glass, goes, he was shot. – He was shot, likely by someone else. – [Ryan] However, in regards
to Edison playing any part in foul play regarding Louis,
or even Adolphe, authors Jean-Jacques Aulas and Jacques
Pfend point out that there is no evidence to support this theory. For what it’s worth, Laurie
Snyder, Louis’s great great granddaughter, has also
voiced her doubts that Edison, a busy and successful man,
would care enough to send a henchman to kill a man. The second theory is that Albert
Le Prince, Louis’s brother, was responsible for Louis’s disappearance. Louis’s brother Albert, an
architect, was notably the only person who claimed to have
seen Louis board the train. According to Rawlence, Albert
even spoke to Louis through his train compartment window. However, the 1890 investigation
never turned up a single train passenger who could
say they saw Louis on board. This is odd, considering the
fact the Louis was a gargantuan man, standing at six foot
four, probably not a man that could get lost in a crowd. I don’t know how many 6’4
fellows there were walking around at that time, but I will say
that when I get on a train, I’m not focused on other passengers. – [Shane] No, you’re reading
the funnies or, you know… – [Ryan] On especially an old-time trains when you’re in compartments. You’re in the Harry Potter
train, you’re thinking about the candy cart coming by. You’re not thinking about,
ooh, I wonder if someone here’s gonna get murdered. Maybe I may have to tell
details of it later. – Also, I think there’s
some value to the fact that everybody’s clothes
looked the same back then. Everyone was probably wearing just a black suit or something. There’s no one walking around
in a Hornets starter jacket. – Yeah. I just think… I thought this was a good
opportunity for you, as a fellow Lord of the Rings tree,
to provide some insight. – They’re called ents. – Whatever. Perhaps the main reason some
are suspicious of Albert involves the will of Louis
and Albert’s other, who passed away in 1887. Albert was the executor of
their mother’s will, and according to author Christopher
Rawlence, Louis had traveled to Dijon, France, not just to
visit Albert, but to receive his share of the inheritance,
worth over $140,000 by today’s standards. This gets even more interesting
when you consider the investigators in 1890 did
not seem to know about the inheritance, which would
give Albert a motive, and furthermore, they did not
seem to question Albert’s testimony regarding seeing
Louis board the train. Laurie Synder, Louis’s great
great granddaughter, once again doubts this theory, basing her
beliefs on Lizzie Le Prince’s memoirs, which depict
a close, loving family. Authors Aulas and Phend also
note there is no evidence to support this theory, and
emphasize that Albert’s family strongly denies it. – [Shane] Alright. – [Ryan] I just don’t buy
it, and I’ll tell you why. – [Shane] Okay. – [Ryan] There’s nothing that
I looked into that proves Albert Le Prince was in
any dire financial straits. – [Shane] I was gonna say, is
there a need for money there? – [Ryan] There isn’t. – So, yeah.
– Why would he all of a sudden decide, oh, I want some
extra bucks, let’s– – [Shane] Let me kill my brother. – [Ryan] Let me kill my
brother and ruin his family by stripping him of his greatest invention. He killed him during life
and after death, then, at that point. – [Shane] Yeah, yeah,
they a man does twice. – You know, story wise, I
could see why some people believe this, sure, but
when you really just think about it, nah. – It’s a little too soap opera. – Yeah, I’m not buying
it, I’m not buying it. – Okay, great. – I’m not. – You don’t have to. – Good. It’s not purchased, it’s on the shelf. It’s gonna stay there. – I’m not selling it. – I didn’t say you were selling it. Someone is and I’m not buying it. – This metaphor is… Where are we in this? – I don’t know. The final theory is perhaps
the bleakest, that Louis Le Prince simply didn’t want to be found. This is the theory of Louis’s
great nephew, who is the grandson of Albert. The theory goes that Louis was
greatly in debt, to the tune of $84,000 by today’s standards. During the mid 1870s, Louis
gave a bad loan to Lizzie’s family business that didn’t pan out. Toward the end, the dual income
of Louis and Lizzie had to not only provide for the
family, but also finance Louis’s film experiments, and
according to author Christoper Rawlence, Louis hadn’t worked
steadily for an income for about three years leading
up to his disappearance. In April, 1890, Louis wrote
to Lizzie about problems with the projector, adding, quote,
I hope to send the word, it is, in my next, and also
some cash, which unfortunately I have not at hand, and it
makes me feel very uneasy as I know you do not make
much just now, end quote. It’s been suggested that in
the end, Louis relied on his mother’s inheritance in order
to continue working on his projector, but learned during
his trip to France that he didn’t have immediate access to the money. Of Louis’s breakout invention,
some, like author Christopher Rawlence, believe that Louis,
a noted perfectionist, felt his projector was not up to the
standards he had envisioned. His letters offer evidence
that Louis was unhappy with the quality of the projector’s picture. It was bright and the picture was jumpy. According to Rawlence, it’s
possible that Louis just got off the train between Dijon and
Paris, rather than face his family in defeat. For people who believe this,
people the believe maybe he wasn’t pleased with his projector. – [Shane] Mmhm. – [Ryan] I think they’re
lacking perspective. You gotta remember, people
didn’t even know what the phrase moving picture meant, so
regardless of whether or not the picture was jumpy, he shows
up to this event, he shows a picture that starts moving,
people are gonna think this guy’s a god damn wizard. – [Shane] Yeah. – [Ryan] They’re not
gonna be like, oh, bro, the quality’s bad. It’s not 1080p, I don’t fuckin’ get it. If I existed back in this time
and I saw a moving picture, I’d probably think his
camera was bewitched. – [Shane] I’d kiss him on the lips. I’d say–
– I’d be like– – [Shane] –sir, you’ve done it! – I’m just saying, it’s stupid
for people to think that he was maybe feeling a little
uneasy about his projector so he decided, I’m just gonna
jump off this train now. Frederick Mason, Louis’s
assistant, believed that Louis would only stand to gain from
his inventions, which would thus make it nonsensical for
him to intentionally disappear on the cusp of his debut. David Wilkinson, a producer on
a documentary on Louis, said, quote, I am absolutely convinced
that he would have raised money from a very distinguished
audience so then he could start manufacturing on quite a big scale. He would’ve done what
Edison and the Lumieres did, but before them. He would’ve been known, end quote. After hearing Louis’s story,
I can’t help but agree. Had Louis successfully shown
his work in New York, Louis Le Prince would’ve been a
name that I read in textbooks as a film student, but
unfortunately, that never happened. The reason behind that
will tragically elude us for the foreseeable future. – I think it was Edison’s goons. – I think it was either Edison’s
goons or some version of goons, whether they’re
Edison’s or some other creator. I don’t know, maybe… Lumiere brothers seem less
likely, but there were other creators who were onto
the motion picture camera. – The little Lumiere
Brothers were just whimsical. They weren’t like, let’s kill this man. – I think it’s because
their name sounds whimsical. – Yeah, they remind me
of the candlestick from Beauty and the Beast. – [Ryan] Oh, Lumiere. – Yes. – Yeah, good catch. On the pen and on the reference. Anyways. Yeah, I think it was
some version of goons. My money’s on Edison. They could’ve been any goons. I think this man was stripped
from glory right at the cusp of it, but maybe now
people will know his name. For what it’s worth, if someone
were to ask me who’s the true father of moving pictures,
I’d say Louis Le Prince, but as for his disappearance,
I can only offer theories, as the case of Louis Le
Prince will remain unsolved.

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