The Man and The Mystery
“There was the unsolved mystery
of his disappearance, but there
was also the unsolved mystery
of how a man who had made
the first films was not considered
or remembered to have done so.”
Louis Le Prince
“The family, not motion pictures,
is the heart of the story.”
by Andrew Elias
MOST PEOPLE WILL name Thomas Edison as the inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph, motion pictures, and hundreds of other devices and machines. Although he obtained more than 1,000 US Patents, Edison in fact often did not invent these apparatus, but rather refined, improved or honed existing inventions and then ingeniously marketed and sold them to businesses and the public.
The story of the invention of motion pictures is complicated. Inspired by improvements in the new art and science of photography, a few inventors, continents apart, were working on a technology and devices that “does for the eye what a phonograph does for the ear,’ as Edison explained.
Frenchmen Louis & Auguste Lumiere developed the ‘Cinematographe’, a camera and projector that could record and play back film, and demonstrated it in 1895. In Edison’s lab, an assistant, invented a ‘Kinetograph’ (movie camera) and a ‘Kinetoscope’ (movie viewer), in 1891.
But a decade earlier, in 1886, a French-born inventor and artist, Louis Le Prince created a motion-picture camera and made several short films in 1888 using newly invented celluloid film. Le Prince was scheduled to present his work in New York City in 1890, but disappeared while traveling in Paris. His body was never found and his death has never been explained.
The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures, by Paul Fischer, is a new book that explores the mysterious disappearance of Louis Le Prince and the fascinating origins of motion pictures.
I asked Fischer about this incredible story and his engrossing book.
What attracted you to Louis Le Prince and moved you to want to write about this little-known story?
PAUL FISCHER: It was a combination of two different things, a little bit like every project: a pre-existing interest, and then a specific story that becomes a way into that pre-existing interest.
In this case, I’ve always been fascinated by the early pioneers of cinema, particularly those whose careers ended at best romantically and, at worst, tragically. I grew up in France, and so I’ve long been aware of Georges Méliès (who late in life was impoverished and living in the Gare Montparnasse), and Charles-Emile Reynaud (who threw his films and equipment into the Seine), and Léon Bouly (the mysterious young man who first patented a device called a Cinématographe, only to have the name repossessed by the Lumière brothers when Bouly let his rights to it expire). But this was just a general interest.
And then, one day, nearly a decade ago now, I first read the name Louis Le Prince in Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker, which is a metaphysical thriller that imagines a conspiracy that underpins all of film history. There’s one bit in the novel, when one character is explaining the secret history of the movies to another, where they mention this man called Louis Le Prince, who supposedly made the first film ever, and supposedly was eliminated for some nefarious reason. That anecdote was so specific in its detail that I immediately wondered if Le Prince was an invention of Roszak’s, or whether he was a real person the author had repurposed to fit into the conspiracy.
I found that Le Prince was real, and that he had disappeared, and that his disappearance had never been resolved, and that his family had been convinced Thomas Edison was responsible for that disappearance. Most intriguing, was that fragments of Le Prince’s early films still existed, and could categorically be dated to 1888, years before the Lumière brothers ever held a film screening. In other words, it seemed to me evident and provable that Le Prince had been the first to make what we think of as motion pictures — and yet no one knew him. History didn’t acknowledge him. It was that part of it, more than any others, that hooked me at first. There was the unsolved mystery of his disappearance, but there was also the unsolved mystery of how a man who so clearly had made the first films was not considered or remembered to have done so. I started thinking that, if I broadened that canvas, here was also a way to write about those pioneers I was fascinated by — Méliès, Reynaud, and the others — and about everyone who chased this elusive technology that could annihilate time and preserve people forever, and yet were lost to time themselves.
The book is part history and part mystery — and although it is non-fiction it often reads more like a novel. How did you walk that line when writing the book?
I had some experience of that balancing act from my first book, which is also non-fiction, about a time two South Korean filmmakers were kidnapped to North Korea and forced to make films for several years by Kim Jong-Il. Everything you read about North Korea is so sensationalist and hard to believe, and the story being told in that book was itself so wild, that I realized early on in the writing of that book that if I included even one anecdote, one detail, that could be disproved, it would throw everything else in the book in question. Because it was all so mad it sounded made-up in the first place. So I was very, very careful with that book to try and corroborate everything I wrote. What I found out in doing so was that, as you’re verifying every piece of information, you’re uncovering unexpected details and connections and bits of fact that help make the real story even more vivid, rather than less.
I researched and wrote this the same way. If you dig really deep, and you try to find two or three first-hand accounts of an event instead of one, often you find great stuff. I also did this thing [author] Erik Larson swears by, which is to arrange your research in a big, linear chronology, so you can see the events as they happened, one after the other, and in doing so, you end up finding links and you also start getting a sense of where cause-and-effect might be at play. I think a novel is really about cause and effect: if this happens to this character, or if that character does this, then what happens next?
The style of the book came out of the combination of those two methods. I could have really vivid, factually verifiable scenes, drawn from all that research, that I could also arrange in a way that engaged cause-and-effect and narrative drive, because the chronology provided that clarity. And then — and this is probably more key than anything else — my editor at Simon & Schuster grilled me repeatedly about every single line in my manuscript. Either I could source the information, or it had to go.
The book is also a dramatic family saga, spanning decades and continents and with a cast of incredible characters. It is also quite romantic at times, describing Le Prince’s relationship with his wife, Lizzie. Why was it important to focus on the Le Prince family — and the love between him and Lizzie?
This is going to sound really cheesy, but when I first get into researching and laying out a story, I’m always looking for love. Love is everything. ‘This guy made the first movies and then mysteriously disappeared’ is intriguing enough to bring you to a book, and it might even be enough to keep you reading, but it’s not enough to make you care. What we care about is always love, I think — its presence or its absence or its loss, or its overcoming the odds or its succumbing to them.
I knew this would have a fair dose of it, because obsession is kind of love gone mad, and Le Prince was clearly obsessed with getting motion pictures to work. At the same time, one of the main sources on Le Prince’s life is an unpublished memoir written by Lizzie, which also includes pages written by Le Prince’s son, Adolphe. In reading and dissecting that memoir, I got such a strong sense of Lizzie and how important she had been to Louis, as well as such a strong sense for the loss Adolphe felt for the father he’d looked up to and worked with. It was clear Louis and Lizzie had been a partnership, that they had shared ideas about how life should be lived. It was clear they wanted to pass those ideas — which were quite idealistic, in a very middle-class Victorian kind of way — to their children, and it was clear they had been willing to invent and re-invent themselves together, several times over, to live by those ideas. Which in my mind speaks to a very close, very special kind of marriage.
The family, not moving pictures, is the heart of the story. You wouldn’t close the book after the last page and remember Le Prince’s experiments with celluloid or his tinkering with perforations. It doesn’t even make that much of a difference, in the grand scheme of things, who made the first film and how you define that and what that means.
But the image of his wife and daughter, standing in Battery Park in a storm, scanning the faces of the immigrants arriving off ships in big human waves, scanning desperately for the husband and father they hadn’t seen in years and who had suddenly vanished off the face of the Earth, never to be seen again — the idea of putting yourself in their shoes, and feeling the sinking realization that after years and decades of reinvention, it was all ending in this inexplicable loss and the ensuing open-ended grief… that’s the stuff that has a chance of sticking with you for a while.
Art adapts and progresses as new technologies arise and new inventions are created. Le Prince (a painter and photographer) approached inventing a motion picture machine somewhat as an artist exploring new avenues for expression, while Edison approached it as an engineer and businessman, as a solution to a problem that could then be monetized. This could be another story about a visionary gobbled up by the powerful.
I think so. The Lumière brothers were very similar to Edison in that regard: they were very creative, very inventive industrialists, but they were industrialists all the same. They were business people. Some of us tend to think of Edison either as this exceptional genius, this embodiment of American resourcefulness, and others tend to think of him as an intellectual property thief. What I found is he might have started as the former, and in his final years he might have been more of the latter, but for the bulk of his public life he was neither. What he was, I think — particularly in the time covered by this book — was much more interesting and modern and consequential: he was the head of the first modern Research and Development organization, and he was an iconic figure of his time, a man who had invented a couple of defining devices and was now running a business defined by his image and brand, —very much a Steve Jobs of that era. And like Steve Jobs, he was making products for the market. The end goal was to make money, and if an invention couldn’t be monetized, Edison was very clear that it held little interest for him, because commercial success was the goal.
Le Prince was the opposite. In his mind, motion pictures wouldn’t have value because they would make money, they would make money because they had value. I’m fascinated by that idea. Film history as we are used to it is a commercial, industrial history. But as a medium it was born at precisely the time in history when artists and artisans, like Le Prince — or Méliès, or Reynaud — were being squeezed out and out-muscled by corporations. Invention, which had more creative and benevolent connotations, was becoming innovation, which is all about bringing something new to market. It’s directly because of this that creative artisans like Le Prince end up forgotten, while business people like Edison are remembered. It was one of the things that increasingly drew me to Le Prince: the opportunity to rewrite the birth of cinema a little, to remember that motion pictures were first achieved by a man who had a vision for the good they could do and the usefulness they might have, and not primarily whether they were a viable commercial product.
You describe many events in great and specific detail — from Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments leading to the creation of his famous photograph, ’The Horse in Motion’ to Le Prince’s final works creating his ‘receiver’. What kinds of research did you do?
I’m ravenous about research. I get really afraid that I’ll miss something important, and that missing it will undermine the whole exercise. I do everything I can think of and afford. In this case I read every book and article I could find on all the main characters, I traveled to the north of England and New Jersey and to all the specific places these events happened, I scoured newspapers of the day, I visited archives. I’m very fortunate to have been able to lean on the incredible work done at Rutgers University to document every inch of Edison’s life and work, and on the work done over decades by other cinema historians. And I had Lizzie and Adolphe’s writings and what has been preserved of Le Prince’s own notebooks and letters.
I made family trees on Ancestry and contacted the descendants of the people Le Prince worked with in Leeds, for instance, and suddenly someone who was just a name in Le Prince’s own journals came to life through the details and stories preserved by the family.
I get really obsessive. It’s not so much driven by a desire to write vivid scenes as it is by abject fear someone else will find something I missed.
Sometimes chance meetings change history. Who did Le Prince happen to meet that changed his life and how?
I actually think maybe all of our lives are shaped by chance meetings. Le Prince’s certainly was. When he was a child, he met Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography, and that encounter gave rise to his interest in images. When he was a young adult, he met John Whitley, Lizzie’s brother, simply because a professor who knew them both decided to introduce them — and that in turn led Le Prince to England, to Lizzie, to working in industry.
You do an outstanding job of describing a very exciting time, when America and the world was changing dramatically and rapidly. You say that New York was “living on the line where the present became the future”.
As kids in France, my friends and I saw America as a place that lived right on the edge of the future — a place where history was being made every second, as opposed to France, which felt like to us like it lived in the past. That was the great attraction of America from afar. I’ve since lived in New York, and New York is like the condensed, intensified version of that America.
When I researched immigrants’ first experiences of New York in the 1880s, when the Le Princes came to America, the newcomers’ experiences mirrored those feelings. They were arriving in the place where the future was being made. Louis and Lizzie saw America as a chance to be part of that future, maybe even to help make it. And of course cinema itself is so tied in this idea of American idealism and opportunity. Many of the Jewish immigrants who started the Hollywood studios and made the industry what it became had come through the same landing gates as Le Prince, and around the same time.
It was striking, too, that America was synonymous with the future in the 1880s, and it still felt that way to us as kids in the 1990s.
At the time his disappearance, just before he was to unveil his ‘motion picture’ invention, he was considering partnering with Thomas Edison. Shortly after Le Prince’s death was pronounced, Edison announced his ‘Kinetograph’ and ‘Kinetoscope’. Have you considered what could have, or would have, happened if Le Prince had lived and collaborated with Edison?
Someone else did collaborate with Edison on the movies — one of his employees, a Scot by the name of William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. In fact Dickson did more than collaborate with Edison. As the researcher in charge of motion picture experimentation, he was as much the inventor of the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope as Edison was, probably even more so. We have 35mm film because of Dickson. That was the picture size he settled on and it became the standard.
But Edison wasn’t big on sharing credit. So he claimed the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph as his personal brainchild, as he did all the inventions that came out of his lab, and eventually Dickson left the company. That sort of thing happened over and over. Edison later bought Thomas Armat’s Vitascope, a projector system, and claimed it as his own — advertising it as ‘Edison’s Greatest Marvel’. There are documented cases of third parties approaching Edison with inventions, looking for collaboration — only for Edison to sue, or accuse them of stealing his own work.
It would have gone one of those ways for Le Prince.
Le Prince’s wife came to believe that her husband was murdered. Do you think he was murdered?
I certainly don’t want to spoil the way the book ends, or the theory I put forward and feel confident in. The idea of proof, in this type of Victorian-era mystery, is fascinating, because it’s generally not realistic. Our natural instinct, coming to a story like Le Prince’s, is to want a smoking gun — definitive proof. The most famous examples of a similar kind are the Jack the Ripper murders, which happened around the same time. We want to know who Jack the Ripper really was, and we want undeniable proof, and we convince ourselves it’s out there somewhere.
What I found is that the smoking guns, for the most part, don’t exist. These are a 130 year old cold cases. Someone once even wrote an article spoofing the whole idea that you might find a confession from Le Prince’s murderer buried in an archive somewhere — because that’s the romantic hope all researchers harbor deep down, even though we know it’s never going to happen.
If they were to make a film about this story, who would you cast as Louis Le Prince?
Whoever comes in and manages not to be ridiculous in a French accent and a Hulihee. •
The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures: A True Tale of Obsession, Murder, and The Movies, by Paul Fischer is published by Simon & Schuster.