Who Killed Louis Le Prince?, by Nat Segnit

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April 2022 Issue [Reviews]

Who Killed Louis Le Prince?

On the forgotten father of film

Stills from Roundhay Garden Scene, October 1888, by Louis Le Prince © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London. Courtesy Science Museum Group

[Reviews]

Who Killed Louis Le Prince?

On the forgotten father of film
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Discussed in this essay:

The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures: A True Tale of Obsession, Murder, and the Movies, by Paul Fischer. Simon and Schuster. 416 pages. $28.99.

On the morning of October 14, 1888, Louis Le Prince set up a heavy wooden box in the garden of his father-in-law’s small manor house on the outskirts of Leeds. The box was made of Honduran mahogany, burnished to a soft sheen, and stood on splayed applewood legs with iron fixtures. Le Prince turned the brass crank and began filming. The surviving footage is so mundane that it takes a mental adjustment to recall that for its early viewers it would have been nothing short of a miracle: the world’s first motion picture. Four figures—Le Prince’s elderly in-laws Joseph and Sarah Whitley, his sixteen-year-old son Adolphe, visiting from New York, and a family friend, Annie Hartley—mill about on the lawn by a bay window; Adolphe circling his elders at a young man’s lick; Joseph taking a smaller turn with a rakish flap of his mackintosh; poor Annie, nonplussed, turning from the camera in the first recorded example of onscreen self-consciousness. From a personal perspective, the filming was timely, as Sarah Whitley was to die ten days after the footage was shot. To make his prototype camera and projector commercially viable, Le Prince had his work cut out—low light levels inside the projector were a persistent problem—but separate accounts by his wife Lizzie and his assistant Fred Mason indicate that by early 1890, four years before Thomas Edison introduced his Kinetoscope to the public, Le Prince was planning to travel to New York to hold the first motion-picture screening in history. He never made it.

What happened to Le Prince remains a mystery. Lizzie, however, was convinced she knew the truth. In May 1891, eight months after Le Prince was last seen alive, the New York Sun broke the story of Edison’s latest wonder: the Kinetograph, a motion-picture camera that recorded the footage viewable through the peephole of its counterpart, the Kinetoscope. What made Edison’s announcement all the more suspicious was that in late 1890, a few weeks after Le Prince’s disappearance, Edison had filed a “caveat,” or preliminary patent application, for a motion-picture camera strikingly similar to Le Prince’s design, when Edison’s earlier caveats had been nothing like it. Within days of the Sun’s story, Lizzie had been contacted by acquaintances outraged at Edison’s nerve. Henry Woolf, a friend who had been familiar with Le Prince’s camera from its earliest days, was categorical. The Kinetoscope “was an infringement on Le Prince’s machine.” Later that spring, Lizzie was returning by boat from New Jersey to Manhattan when, on deck, she spotted none other than Edison himself, deep in conversation with a man she recognized: William Dameron Guthrie, an attorney who had been friends with her father and had briefly served as Le Prince’s patent adviser.

It was now beyond doubt: the world-famous Wizard of Menlo Park had stolen her husband’s invention. Not only that, he had probably had him killed to keep him from talking. As Paul Fischer points out in The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures, his provocative new biography of Louis Le Prince, Edison was known for using hired muscle to break up labor disputes. “Who was to say,” writes Fischer, “what lengths the Wizard would have gone to for ‘his’ last great invention?”

It’s a question that both propels Fischer’s narrative and, at times, threatens to cloud a more important consideration. What is there in Le Prince’s story, aside from Edison’s supposed skulduggery, to warrant book-length treatment? After all, to ask who invented motion-picture technology is, from one perspective, to miss the point. Cinema is one of the nineteenth century’s more notable examples of multiple discovery, a persuasive rebuttal of the heroic theory of invention, the idea that great discoveries are the works of inspired individuals. The period leading up to April 1894, when Edison licensed the first Kinetoscope parlor, was a free-for-all of competing and convergent technologies. In Paris, the Lumière brothers unveiled their cinématographe. In California, the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge had solved the problem of instantaneous photography, having frozen a fleeting moment—specifically, the point at which all four of a trotting horse’s hooves were off the ground—by devising shutters that could snap open for one thousandth of a second. All the early experimenters had been hampered by the tendency of glass plates to crack, until George Eastman, a photographic supplies salesman from Rochester, New York, hit on the idea of using paper rolls instead. In 1888, the Yorkshireman John Carbutt went one step further by applying photographic emulsion to the recently invented plastic known as celluloid.

In hindsight, the impression is of an unwitting team effort, each inventor chipping away at the riddle of cinema without quite twigging its significance. “You don’t even know what the thing is yet,” Sean Parker tells Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, “the thing” being Facebook circa 2004. Cinema was much the same in the late nineteenth century: yet to coalesce into itself. Edison saw no commercial value in his Kinetoscope, dismissing it as a “toy.” Similarly, when Georges Méliès, the future special-effects pioneer and director of A Trip to the Moon, asked to borrow the cinématographe, the Lumières told him not to bother. Film was a passing fancy.

If, Fischer contends, there is an exception to this rule, a figure who might have understood the magnitude of his discoveries, it is Le Prince. Motion pictures, he predicted to Lizzie, would abolish “the divine right of kings and much needless priestcraft.” Fischer’s book is not quite the “never before told history” his publishers would have us believe. Christopher Rawlence’s The Missing Reel, published in 1990, covers much the same ground, as does David Nicholas Wilkinson’s 2015 documentary The First Film. Nonetheless, the work Fischer has done in going back to primary sources, in particular the unpublished memoirs of Lizzie and Adolphe, sheds light on Le Prince as a free-spirited idealist, more interested in the social and expressive potential of film than in its commercial exploitation. The claim Fischer’s biography has on our attention rests both on Le Prince’s achievements and the vision he had for them. One of the pleasures, and sadnesses, of Fischer’s account is its evocation of a period, however brief, when the emergence of a technology seemed to herald a new age of human interconnectedness. What followed instead was Le Prince’s disappearance, the theft of his ideas, and the cornering of a fledgling movie market by practices verging on gangsterism. The story of his life amounts not only to a captivating whodunit, but to a lens on the development of cinema itself.

Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born in Metz, in 1841, the younger son of an artillery captain in Napoleon III’s army. At twenty-five, he moved to Leeds, having been invited there by a fellow graduate of Leipzig University, Jack Whitley, the scion of a manufacturing family. Within three years he had married Jack’s sister Lizzie and joined Whitley Partners as a draftsman and European sales agent.

Ostensibly his appeal was as a sophisticate. A tall, elegant veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, with the extravagant combination of long muttonchops, bare chin, and mustache known as the Hulihee, Le Prince was an artist with an unusual interest in technology. Which is to say, precisely the kind of educated, cosmopolitan grand bourgeois that Jack, eager to distance himself from his father’s working-class origins, thought might best represent the company’s interests abroad. In reality Le Prince was closer in temperament to the elder Whitley: an oily-fingered tinkerer, happiest in the workshop, and “more interested,” as Fischer notes, “in patent applications than profit statements.”

By the mid-1870s, however, Whitley Partners had hit the skids (largely through Jack’s mismanagement), and Le Prince turned his attention to photography, an interest that had itched at him since his father introduced him to Louis Daguerre in the 1840s. While experimenting one day with a technique known as compositing, whereby images from different photographs could be combined, Le Prince accidentally let the glass plate in his hands, and the paper print beneath it, slip from his grasp, creating, as Lizzie later recalled, “a distinct impression of movement.”

Le Prince was convinced that “moving photographs” would be the century’s next great invention. In 1881, he moved with Lizzie and their six children to New York, after a failed venture—led by the serial underachiever Jack Whitley—to sell Lincrusta, a cheap new wall covering, in the United States. Le Prince may also have been hiding from his creditors: after the bankruptcy of Whitley Partners, he had borrowed three hundred and fifty pounds from an acquaintance in Leeds, and had fallen behind on his repayments. Several years passed in hardship and frustration. Le Prince tried and failed to make a go of an interior design business. But the dream of a moving-picture machine persisted, perhaps especially, as Fischer suggests, after reports emerged of the advances made by Muybridge and the French inventor Étienne-Jules Marey. Le Prince’s early experiments were hampered by a lack of funds and technical wherewithal. The race was on, but he was not yet in the running.

In 1887, fate intervened. That May, Le Prince’s mother died, leaving her five-story townhouse in Paris to Louis and his elder brother, Albert. Louis agreed to sell his share to his brother for sixty thousand francs, worth roughly $700,000 today. Le Prince also received an offer from Joseph Whitley, his father-in-law and former employer, to return to Leeds and use his foundry and resources. Lizzie and the children would stay behind in New York. With Whitley’s backing and the promise of financial security, Le Prince could begin refining his camera and projector in earnest. His chief preoccupation was with “persistence of vision,” tricking the eye into perceiving successive still images as continuous movement. It was this idea that separated Le Prince from Muybridge, Marey, and his other rivals in the field of instantaneous photography—not to capture a fleeting moment in order to examine it more closely, but to stitch it to its neighbors, seamlessly; not to stop time, but to simulate its flow. The question was how.

“Animal Locomotion, plate 636,” circa 1887, by Eadweard Muybridge. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Right: The hands of Louis Lumière, 1936 © LIMOT/Bridgeman Images

“Animal Locomotion, plate 636,” circa 1887, by Eadweard Muybridge. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Right: The hands of Louis Lumière, 1936 © LIMOT/Bridgeman Images

“I never had an idea in my life,” Thomas Edison once told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’ve got no imagination. I never dream. My so-called inventions already existed in the environment—I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does.” We might read this as modesty, an acknowledgment that great inventions predate their discovery—lurk in the marble, as it were—and that the genius of the inventor lies more in recognition than ingenuity.

Alternatively, it’s a convenient credo for a man notorious for exploiting other people’s efforts. The incandescent light bulb was a hybrid of William Arcand’s mineral-oil lamp and the globe-shaped bulb and carbon filament invented by Joseph Swan, whom Edison considered suing for patent infringement after appropriating his idea. Edison’s light-bulb moment was simply to steal Swan’s work and claim it very forcefully as his own. Far from beating Alexander Graham Bell to the invention of the telephone, Edison only contributed an improvement, the carbon microphone, itself independently invented in England by David Edward Hughes; Edison was merely the first to secure the patent. By the 1880s, the Wizard of Menlo Park was irascible, nearly deaf, and, rich and famous as he was, as ostentatiously unpretentious—he favored rough jackets and work pants over business suits—as he was contemptuous of his gifted underlings. (Nikola Tesla, the brilliant electrical engineer who made vital contributions to the development of the alternating-current system, quit the Edison Machine Works in Lower Manhattan after a promised bonus failed to materialize.)

In the race to develop motion-picture technology, Edison largely delegated to his talented young Scottish assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, who, in October 1888, set out to work on the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope, devices that Edison had announced to his patent agents with only a faint idea of how they might work.

This hastiness was characteristic. The caveat that Edison filed in 1890 was the latest in a long line of pre-patent applications. Caveats called for none of the exhaustive detail of the full patent application, but could still be used to establish precedence, as the caveat holder would be notified as soon as a rival application was filed. The caveat holder then had three months to put together a full application, which, although filed later than its rival, would be backdated to match the original caveat. This suited Edison’s conception of inventorship very well: sketch a vague idea on the back of an envelope, then claim the finished product as his own once someone else had done all the hard work.

Meanwhile, Dickson was struggling to turn Edison’s vision into reality. Edison’s insistence that he use an impractical glass cylinder as a photographic base, rather than Eastman’s paper film, was impeding Dickson’s progress. More problematic in the long term was the fact that in making the Kinetoscope a peephole device, whereby images were viewed through an eyepiece, Edison and Dickson were betting the house on the individuated experience, where, as the critic David Thomson has argued, cinema in its heyday would come to be defined by the opposite. To see Steamboat Bill, Jr. or Citizen Kane or The Godfather on the big screen is, in an important sense, to be rendered helpless, to forgo our rewinding rights or our itch to click away, to surrender to an experience whose commonality is crucial to its beauty. Watch Fred Ott’s Sneeze—directed by Dickson, and the first motion picture to be granted a copyright—on the Kinetoscope, and you could pause, crank it backward, and watch Fred Ott sneeze for a second time, less a prefiguration of the big screen than of the iPhone on a morning commute, the viewer all-powerful and alone.

Not that Edison was too bothered, in any case. A measure of how little store he set by Dickson’s invention was his refusal to pay the $150 it would cost to patent the Kinetoscope abroad—although, as Fischer points out, this may have been a tacit recognition that his European rivals, Marey and Le Prince included, “already held patents that pre-empted virtually every design element Dickson had put in Edison’s own machines.”

Le Prince’s great breakthrough was his realization that the impression of continuous movement need not depend on the film moving continuously through the camera or projector: to relieve tension, it could stop behind the lens for a fraction of a second before moving on. As long as the frames advanced at a rate of twelve or thirteen per second, persistence of vision would be preserved. Leeds itself may have been a factor in this epiphany. The city was a center of the textile industry in the late nineteenth century, specializing in the cropping and dyeing of broadcloth. Fischer hazards a tantalizing guess at the inspiration this may have provided:

Walking through the neighborhood or even along its edges, as Le Prince did hundreds of times, he would have heard the clanking and punching of dozens and dozens of the sewing machines, the steady chunka chunka chunka of needles punching through fabric, the machine’s mechanism intermittently moving the cloth forward, stopping it for each stitch, driving it onward for the next.

Le Prince and his assistants devised a mechanism whereby pins installed in the projector’s rotating drums would engage with sprocket holes on the edges of the film. By October 1888—the same month that Dickson began work on Edison’s Kinetoscope and Kinetograph—Le Prince had overcome the problems of shuddering images and the inherent fragility of paper film to shoot the world’s first moving footage with a single-lens camera, the two-second snippet known as Roundhay Garden Scene. He had plans to film fictional movies, to build a screening room he called a “people’s theater,” and to establish motion pictures as a means both to educate and “connect the people of the world.” The home movie shot on the front lawn in Leeds was an astonishing achievement, and a decisive step toward the vision of human interconnectedness that Le Prince would not live to see betrayed.

Left: Louis Le Prince (right) and his family, circa 1886. Courtesy Laurie Snyder Right: A drawing of a camera with notes, by Louis Le Prince. Courtesy Leeds University Library, England

Left: Louis Le Prince (right) and his family, circa 1886. Courtesy Laurie Snyder Right: A drawing of a camera with notes, by Louis Le Prince. Courtesy Leeds University Library, England

It was only after the advances made by Le Prince and others that Edison’s head was turned by a technology he had written off as uncommercial. Following the triumph of Roundhay Garden Scene, Le Prince moved on to shooting on location, with a brief sequence of traffic on Leeds Bridge. Over the next two years, Le Prince made improvements to his machines, including converting them from paper film to celluloid, a process only slightly undermined by the fact that his brother was showing no signs of paying back the vast debt owed him. In September 1890, after visiting his recently widowed brother in Dijon, Le Prince planned to return via Paris and Liverpool to New York, where he would finalize plans for his inaugural motion-picture screening. Somewhere en route, he went missing. Weeks later, Edison filed his caveat.

Even then, Edison’s interest was patchy, if not reluctant. As late as 1891 he was predicting that the Kinetoscope would turn out to be of predominantly “sentimental worth.” After moonlighting for a rival to the Kinetoscope, Dickson parted ways with Edison in 1895—not amicably—to found American Mutoscope, which was to become Edison Manufacturing’s main motion-picture competitor in the United States. Nickelodeons began appearing all over the country. Now Edison was interested.

Over the coming decade, Edison’s lawyers fought to establish that a caveat filed by Edison, retroactively dated to 1888, proved the precedence of the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope and that therefore he, not Le Prince, had invented “the fundamental underlying concept of motion pictures.” This was almost certainly not true. Although the sprockets in the Kinetograph engaged with the film in a slightly different way, Fischer makes a persuasive case that the crux of Edison’s machine—“a strip of rollable film exposed intermittently past the camera shutter, fast enough to sustain persistence of vision”—was Le Prince’s invention, unlike any of the other motion-picture devices in development at the time.

It made little difference in the end. Edison’s eventual victory—after a number of legal setbacks, which he used his vast wealth and influence to overturn—was pivotal in enabling him to join forces with Mutoscope and form the Motion Pictures Patents Company, informally known as the Edison Trust, which ensured that anyone making, distributing, or showing a movie in the United States from 1908 onward could only legally do so under license to the MPPC. Eastman Kodak agreed not to sell its new celluloid film to filmmakers outside the trust. Any producer or distributor not playing ball could expect a visit from a federal marshal or a thug with Mob connections. Before MPPC, the U.S. film market had been dominated by foreign imports, in particular from France; the trust’s stranglehold on the distribution system put an abrupt end to that.

Edison had established total control over a technology he’d considered a toy. Within twenty years of its invention, cinema in the United States became subject to a violently enforced monopoly that placed crippling restraints on trade and artistic freedom. If you wanted to make a film, you were Edison’s employee. One unexpected outcome of Edison’s power grab, however, was that a group of renegade producers, eager to escape the Wizard’s lawyers, set up shop in a small town with lax patent laws and year-round sunshine: Hollywood, California.

As Fischer explains, perhaps the greatest casualty of Edison’s MPPC was the fledgling European film industry. The trust’s absorption of two French companies, Pathé and Georges Méliès’s Star Films, drove many filmmakers into insolvency, including Méliès, who by the mid-1920s was selling candy from a stall at Gare Montparnasse. What was left of France’s film industry was all but wiped out by World War I. As France foundered, the rise of Hollywood would lead, Fischer writes, to “a discourse that cast France as the cradle of artistic filmmaking and America as a commercial factory, churning out flicks.

It’s an interesting argument, even if it omits the possibility that the Hollywood studio system furnished the conditions for more adventurous filmmaking to flourish, for all that “art” would have been a dirty word to studio bosses. There would have been no Philadelphia Story or Maltese Falcon without Louis B. Mayer’s and Jack Warner’s efficiencies. Still, it’s intriguing to consider what might have happened if Le Prince had survived—or, at least, if his widow and son had prevailed against Edison’s lawyers and established his precedence in the “fundamental underlying concept of motion pictures.” Without the court ruling in Edison’s favor, the MPPC would have been hard-pressed to sue filmmakers for infringing on patents that were never due to Edison in the firstplace. Might the absence of the MPPC and its gangster tactics have helped the French film industry to recover from the war, softening the distinction between American churn and the Gallic avant-garde, even shifting the center of moviemaking power from the United States to Europe? Fischer doesn’t speculate, but Le Prince’s story does give a counterfactual glimpse—if not of an enduringly less rapacious, more idealistic early film industry, then at least of a longer age of innocence. How much longer is open to question. Edison’s MPPC was finally brought down by antitrust legislation in 1918. The studio system, with its compliant LAPD and apologists in Washington, was up and running less than a decade later. If history has taught us anything, to misquote Michael Corleone, it’s that closed shop will follow closed shop, that money will always prevail, and that the little man never had a hope in hell.

Fischer’s narration is briskly paced and elegant, although he borrows too often from the stock library of tension-building effects, most conspicuously in his recourse to the single-sentence paragraph: “And then everything changed—again.” As a device to strong-arm the reader into conceding significance, it’s about as subtle as a crash zoom, particularly with the added emphasis of the em-dash. (See also, “Lizzie had a suspect—with a motive”; “This caused no rancor—yet.”) It’s a minor quibble, worth noting only because it undermines an indisputably dramatic story by overegging it. Could Edison have had Le Prince rubbed out? In October 1890, a little less than a month after he was last seen alive, a corpse that answered vaguely to Le Prince’s description turned up at the Paris Morgue. The cause of death was drowning, although the face showed signs of trauma consistent with a beating. It’s conceivable that Le Prince, stopping in Paris before sailing on to England, had stumbled into trouble on the banks of the Seine. But the medical examiner’s report conflicts with what we know of his appearance, in one notable instance by omission: there is no mention of his height. Le Prince was six foot three, an unquestionable identifier at a time when the average adult male was five foot six. Fischer stops short of pinning Le Prince’s disappearance on his brother, Albert, but the evidence is damning. Years of turning down job offers to concentrate on his inventions meant that, by 1890, Le Prince’s debt had swelled from three hundred and fifty pounds to over six hundred, worth nearly $70,000 today. If unpaid, it was easily enough to land him in jail. Louis was as desperate for his share of the inheritance as Albert—by all accounts, even more financially inept than his brother—was desperate not to pay it. We can be fairly sure that the drowned corpse in Paris did not belong to Le Prince. The man whose invention could reanimate the dead had vanished, never to be seen again.