In one of the greatest motion picture mysteries of the 19th century, Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince, a Frenchman considered to be the true father of motion pictures, inexplicably vanished during a train ride to Paris on this day in 1890.
Born in France, trained under Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, inventor of the daguerreotype, and schooled in painting and chemistry, Le Prince acquired a solid foundation in moving picture photography, the field in which he would have made a name for himself had he not mysteriously disappeared. After gaining recognition for starting a school of applied art with his wife, Elizabeth Whitley, where husband and wife fixed color photography to metal and pottery, Le Prince temporarily moved to the United States where he continued experimenting with moving pictures.
In 1886, during his time in the States, Le Prince built a camera that used 16 different lenses to capture motion. Though the projected image was quite jerky, it earned Le Prince his first patent. In 1887, Le Prince returned the United Kingdom and in May, designed and built a single lens camera. In October of 1888, Le Prince used his invention to shoot Roundhay Garden Scene, the world’s first motion picture. Though just seconds long, this and another movie, Leeds Bridge, are the oldest existing movies in the world, shot well before Thomas Edison or the Lumiere brothers even had a working camera.
Le Prince kept experimenting and improving his invention and by 1890, had perfected a system to shoot and project film. Cognisant of his competition and the race to secure patents and recognition, Le Prince decided to make a trip to New York to promote his new camera and exhibit his invention.
First, he made a trip to Dijon to visit his brother and take care of some business, promising his friends and family he would return to Paris the following Monday so he could journey on to the UK and the US in order to promote his new camera. After his Dijon visit, on 16 September 1890, Le Prince boarded the 2:42 PM train in Dijon, for Paris.
He was never seen again.
Somewhere between Dijon and Paris, just before his motion picture technology was to debut on the world stage, Le Prince–and his luggage– vanished. His family suspected foul play, perhaps an assassination by his competitors in the moving pictures field, but never found proof. As Le Prince was on the verge of bankruptcy, others think Le Prince committed the perfect suicide, leaving no traces of his body or his belongings. Though comprehensive investigations were conducted by French police, Scotland Yard, and Le Prince’s family, his body was never recovered and his disappearance case never solved. Sadly, two years after testifying in a patent case involving Thomas Edison, Le Prince’s son’s body was found dead on Long Island. And in 2003, a photo of a drowned man resembling Le Prince surfaced in a Paris Police archive.
Though his case was never solved, historians know this: had he lived, Le Prince would have continued to make great strides in motion picture technology and he would have entered the history books as the true inventor of the motion picture.
Caption: Cinema pioneer Louis Le Prince.