Louis Le Prince and His Disappearing Act


Four years before Thomas Edison patented the motion picture camera in 1892, there was somebody else. In 1888, Louis Le Prince invented and patented a 16-lens device and a single lens device, in which recorded a series of moving images, or what we now know as movies.

On September 16, 1890, he disappeared, never to be seen again. A highly debatable, mysterious case, we delve into how and why Le Prince vanished that fateful day.

By definition, film is shot from a single point of view, or a single-lens camera. The first person, speculated, to invent a single-lens camera was none other than Louis Le Prince.

Louis Le Prince’s Single-Lens Camera

Le Prince was a well-renowned artist from France, who studied chemistry and physics before becoming an artist, taking a job at an engineering firm in Leeds, England.

A fan of all things photography, Le Prince set off in the 1880’s to master the art of cinematography, almost completely unknown at the time. For years he experimented, at first creating a 16-lens device, now written off as sequential photography, before he began working on the single-lens camera we all know.

The large, wooden box was what sealed his fate as being regarded as the father of cinematography to this day. A short, silent film can still be watched today. Filmed at outside his home in Roundhay, Leeds, showing his son and friends. Le Prince received a British patent for his invention in 1888, after applying for both an American and British patent.

Picture from the Louis Le Prince short film, 1888

Even with the patent, his invention was virtually useless if he didn’t show it, and he was scheduled to hold his first screening in New York City, in 1890. Sadly, he disappeared before he could.

Le Prince, after visiting his brother in France, was said to have boarded a train from Dijon to Paris, in September of 1890. Mysteriously, he never arrived in Paris.

Although he was seen getting onto the train, nobody saw him leaving. His luggage was gone, and it almost seemed like he disappeared from the face of the earth. There have been multiple theories about his disappearance, ranging from suicide to faking it, but the biggest theory is that Thomas Edison had him killed in favor of taking the patent and invention for himself.

As we know, Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers announced the creation of the single-lens camera in 1892, two years after Le Prince disappeared. Even though Le Prince had a patent, it didn’t stand in America, and for seven years, nobody close to the inventor is allowed to claim royalties for it or announce it, including his spouse. This means Thomas Edison had the ability to take the fame for the invention.

Thomas Edison with his Camera, 1897

While this theory is widely believed and popular, we will never know what truly happened to Louis Le Prince in September of 1890, and although he is known as the father of cinematography, Edison will always have the patent.