Name the inventor of motion pictures. If you said the American technology pioneer Thomas Edison – who gave the world electric light and the phonograph – think again. Louis Le Prince, a Frenchman based in a workshop in Leeds, was poised to unveil the first motion picture camera in 1890 when he vanished.
Le Prince was last seen at a station in France, boarding a Paris-bound train to begin a journey back to England and onward to New York city, where he would demonstrate his breakthrough process for setting still pictures in motion. His body was never found and his fate has been one of the great mysteries of the Victorian Age. Until now.
Paul Fischer, an author, screenwriter and film producer based in the UK, recreates the incredible tale of a forgotten genius and the race to capture and project moving images in The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures. “It’s a ghost story, a family saga and an unsolved mystery,” he promises at the outset – and, he could have added, an astonishing real-life whodunit.
“Moving photographs,” as Le Prince called them, were a technological leap as transformative and momentous as the advent of the printing press. “The past,” Fischer writes, “would become available to the future.” A future Le Prince did not live to see.
As the movie detectives so often ask, who stood to benefit from Le Prince’s disappearance? When, less than a year later, Edison introduced his Kinetograph moving-picture camera – the humble forerunner of the movie industry – Le Prince’s distraught and embittered family was convinced they had found their suspect.
Their day in court came in 1898 when Edison and a rival company squared off in a patent dispute over the motion picture camera. Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, who believed his father had been “eliminated”, testified and asserted that the Le Prince camera had predated the prototypes of Edison and everyone else.
How far might the powerful and litigious Edison have gone to cement his legacy as the inventor of motion pictures? Was Le Prince murdered, or did money woes drive him to suicide? Was his corpse the unclaimed, battered one fished out of the Seine not long after he disappeared?
Fischer sorts fact from conjecture as he offers a solution to this 130-year-old cold case. This is an absorbing tale, elegantly written and brilliantly told, with the plot twists and surprise ending worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Dean Jobb’s latest book, The Case of the Murderous Dr Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books), was longlisted for the American Library Association’s 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction