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A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fifty Four

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Louis le Prince (1841 – 1890)

The latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame is Metz born Louis le Prince, the forgotten founding father of what is now the multi-billion dollar film business.

Our hero in his youth spent time in the studio of his father’s friend, Louis Daguerre, from whom he received lessons in rudimentary photography and chemistry. He went on to take a post-graduate degree in chemistry at Leipzig University. Moving to Leeds in 1866 to join a firm of brass founders called Whiteley’s and marrying his boss’ daughter, Elizabeth, le Prince and his wife earned some renown for fixing photographs on to metal and pottery and some examples of their work, including portraits of Queen Victoria and William Gladstone were sealed in a time capsule and placed in the foundations of Cleopatra’s Needle on the banks of the Thames.

Moving to the United States, le Prince pursued his interest in developing a camera capable of shooting moving pictures. In 1888 he was granted a dual-patent on a device which contained 16 lenses and was capable of taking moving pictures and projecting the results. It was not altogether successful, though, because each lens captured the image from a slightly different angle and the result was rather jumpy.

Undeterred, le Prince returned to Leeds and built a single lens camera which on 14th October 1888 he used to film the world’s first motion picture, now known as the Roundhay Garden Scene and then went on to record scenes of trams, horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians crossing Leeds bridge. A blue plaque today marks the spot where he had set up his camera. The films were soon shown at what would be the world’s first picture show, in Leeds.

But, as is the way with our inductees, le Prince was never able to enjoy his success. In September 1890 he was due to travel to the States to give a public demonstration of his invention and decided, whilst in France, to visit his brother in Dijon. He boarded the train but was not there when it arrived in Paris, nor was his luggage. He was never seen again and was officially declared dead in 1897. A search of Parisian police archives in 2003 revealed a picture of a drowned man dating to 1890 which looked uncannily like le Prince.

Inevitably, there are a number of theories as to what happened to him. One theory, espoused by his grandson, was that the business was in financial difficulties but, au contraire, it seemed that it was profitable and le Prince had high hopes for his camera. Another is that he eloped because he was gay and feared being outed. Another theory is that he was murdered by his brother, who was the last person to see him alive.

The most intriguing theory, though, involves the Steve Jobs of his time, Thomas Edison. Perhaps le Prince was assassinated? Not long after le Prince’s disappearance, Edison tried to assert his claim that he had invented cinematography and thus was entitled to reap the rewards of the invention. This claim was disputed in the American courts by the American Mutoscopy Company. Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, was due to be called as a witness to demonstrate his father’s two cameras but was never called and the case was decided in Edison’s favour, a decision which was overturned a year later.

But the damage had been done. Edison was able to pass himself off as the inventor of cinematography and le Prince’s contribution was not officially recognised until 1930. Adolphe, too, died in mysterious circumstances in 1892, having been found dead on a duck shoot.

Louis, for your contribution to cinematography, you are a worthy inductee.

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If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

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2 responses to “There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Fifty Four

  1. Simon Wyss June 20, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Louis Le Prince might well have been the stranger that had a Lumière Cinématographe rebuilt piece after piece by Andrew Schustek in 1896. Living in relative solitude and under a new name somewhere in Chicago, he grasped one of many elements of standard motion-picture machinery at that time. When the sum of his work was ready to be put to commercial value, he was 70 years old. I can imagine Louis Le Prince as the grey eminence behind the quickly appearing products of the Bell & Howell Company. That company had a unexplained lack of capital since its incorporation in 1907. Who knows whether Le Prince held the missing $500 to the recorded $5000? Albert Summers Howell put his name under a big number of inventions but he couldn’t possibly have made them all. Le Prince may have died around 1917. Donald Joseph Bell withdrew from the firm in that year and moved to California. I know this all sounds rather weird. Something is certain: We know more about Louis Le Prince than we assume. Example: Le Prince met Jean Aimé LeRoy personally in New York City in 1893/94. And LeRoy teamed with Eugène Augustin Lauste in 1894. Lauste was a former employee of Edison together with the creator of the four-perf. pair 1⅜” film, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson.

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