Louis Le Prince

Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince (28 August 1841 – disappeared 16 September 1890) was a French artist and the inventor of an early motion-picture camera, possibly the first person to shoot a moving picture sequence using a single lens camera and a strip of (paper) film.[1][2] He has been credited as "Father of Cinematography",[3] but his work did not influence the commercial development of cinema—owing at least in part to the great secrecy surrounding it.

Louis Le Prince
Le Prince c. 1885
Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince

(1841-08-28)28 August 1841
Disappeared16 September 1890 (aged 49)
Dijon, France
OccupationArtist, art teacher, inventor,
Elizabeth Le Prince-Whitley
(m. 1869)

A Frenchman who also worked in the United Kingdom and the United States, Le Prince's motion-picture experiments culminated in 1888 in Leeds, England.[4] In October of that year, he filmed moving-picture sequences of family members in Roundhay Garden and his son playing the accordion, using his single-lens camera and Eastman's paper negative film.[5] At some point in the following eighteen months he also made a film of Leeds Bridge. This work may have been slightly in advance of the inventions of contemporaneous moving-picture pioneers, such as the British inventors William Friese-Greene and Wordsworth Donisthorpe, and was years in advance of that of Auguste and Louis Lumière and William Kennedy Dickson (who did the moving image work for Thomas Edison).

Le Prince was never able to perform a planned public demonstration of his camera in the US because he mysteriously vanished; he was last known to be boarding a train on 16 September 1890.[1] Multiple conspiracy theories have emerged about the reason for his disappearance, including: a murder set up by Edison, secret homosexuality, disappearance in order to start a new life, and a murder by his brother over their mother's will. No evidence exists for any of these and the most likely explanation remains that he committed suicide, overcome by the shame of heavy debts and the apparent failure of his experiments. In 2004, a police archive in Paris was found to contain a photograph of a drowned man bearing a strong resemblance to Le Prince who was discovered in the Seine just after the time of his disappearance.[5]

In early 1890, Edison workers had begun experimenting with using a strip of celluloid film to capture moving images. The first public results of these experiments were shown in May 1891.[6] However, Le Prince's widow and son Adolphe were keen to advance Louis's cause as the inventor of cinematography. In 1898, Adolphe appeared as a witness for the defence in a court case brought by Edison against the American Mutoscope Company. This suit claimed that Edison was the first and sole inventor of cinematography, and thus entitled to royalties for the use of the process. Adolphe was involved in the case but was not allowed to present his father's two cameras as evidence, although films shot with cameras built according to his father's patent were presented. Eventually the court ruled in favour of Edison. A year later that ruling was overturned,[6] but Edison then reissued his patents and succeeded in controlling the US film industry for many years.[6]

Early life and educationEdit

Le Prince was born on 28 August 1841 in Metz.[7][8] His family referred to him as "Augustin" and English-speaking friends would later call him "Gus".[9] Le Prince's father was a major of artillery in the French Army[10] and an officer of the Légion d'honneur. He grew up spending time in the studio of his father's friend, the pioneer of photography Louis Daguerre,[10] from whom Le Prince received lessons on photography and chemistry. He was also the subject of Daguerre's invention, a daguerreotype portrait.[11] His education went on to include the study of painting in Paris and post-graduate chemistry at Leipzig University,[10] which provided him with the academic knowledge he was to utilise in the future.


Le Prince in the 1880s

In conclusion, I would say that Mr. Le Prince was in many ways a very extraordinary man, apart from his inventive genius, which was undoubtedly great. He stood 6ft. 3in. or 4in. (190cm) in his stockings, well built in proportion, and he was most gentle and considerate and, though an inventor, of an extremely placid disposition which nothing appeared to ruffle.

— Declaration of Frederic Mason (wood-worker and assistant of Le Prince, April 21, 1931, American consulate of Bradford, England)

Le Prince moved to Leeds, England in 1866, after being invited to join John Whitley,[1] a friend from college, in Whitley Partners of Hunslet, a firm of brass founders making valves and components.[12][13] In 1869 he married Elizabeth Whitley, John's sister[1] and a talented artist. The couple started a school of applied art, the Leeds Technical School of Art,[11] in 1871, and became well renowned for their work in fixing coloured photographs on to metal and pottery, leading to them being commissioned for portraits of Queen Victoria and the long-serving Prime Minister William Gladstone produced in this way; these were included alongside other mementos of the time in a time capsule—manufactured by Whitley Partners of Hunslet—which was placed in the foundations of Cleopatra's Needle on the embankment of the River Thames.[citation needed]

In 1881 Le Prince went to the United States[10] as an agent for Whitley Partners, staying in the country along with his family once his contract had ended.[citation needed] He became the manager for a small group of French artists who produced large panoramas, usually of famous battles, that were exhibited in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.[10][12]

During this time he began experiments relating to the production of 'moving' photographs, designing a camera that utilised sixteen lenses,[12] which was the first invention he patented. Although the camera was capable of 'capturing' motion, it wasn't a complete success because each lens photographed the subject from a slightly different viewpoint and thus the image would have jumped about, if he had been able to project it (which is unknown).

Plaque on Leeds Bridge

After his return to Leeds with his family in May 1887,[12] Le Prince built a single-lens camera in mid-late 1888. An experimental model was developed in a workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds and used to shoot his motion-picture films. It was first used on 14 October 1888 to shoot what would become known as Roundhay Garden Scene and a sequence of his son Adolphe playing the accordion. Le Prince later used it to film road traffic and pedestrians crossing Leeds Bridge. The film was shot from Hicks the Ironmongers, now the British Waterways building on the south east side of the bridge,[1] now marked with a commemorative Blue plaque.


In September 1890, Le Prince was preparing for a trip to the United States, supposedly to publicly premiere his work and join his wife and children. Before this journey, he decided to return to France to visit his brother in Dijon. Then, on 16 September, he took a train to Paris but, having taken a later train than planned, his friends missed him in Paris. He was never seen again by his family or friends.[1] The last person to see Le Prince at the Dijon station was his brother.[14] The French police, Scotland Yard and the family undertook exhaustive searches, but never found him.

Le Prince was officially declared dead in 1897.[15] A photograph of a drowned man pulled from the Seine in 1890, strongly resembling Le Prince, was discovered in 2003 during research in the Paris police archives.[10][16] The most likely explanation for his disappearance is thus that, having failed to get his moving picture to work and now in debt, he chose to take his own life.[14]

Before the 2003 discovery, a number of wild and entirely unsubstantiated theories were proposed, including:

Patent Wars assassination, "Equity 6928"
Christopher Rawlence pursues the assassination theory, along with other theories, and discusses the Le Prince family's suspicions of Edison over patents (the Equity 6928) in his 1990 book and documentary The Missing Reel. Rawlence claims that at the time that he vanished, Le Prince was about to patent his 1889 projector in the UK and then leave Europe for his scheduled New York official exhibition. His widow assumed foul play though no concrete evidence has ever emerged and Rawlence prefers the suicide theory. In 1898, Le Prince's elder son Adolphe, who had assisted his father in many of his experiments, was called as a witness for the American Mutoscope Company in their litigation with Edison [Equity 6928]. By citing Le Prince's achievements, Mutoscope hoped to annul Edison's subsequent claims to have invented the moving-picture camera. Le Prince's widow Lizzie and Adolphe hoped that this would gain recognition for Le Prince's achievement, but when the case went against Mutoscope their hopes were dashed. Two years later Adolphe Le Prince was found dead on Fire Island near New York.[17]
Disappearance ordered by the family
In 1966, Jacques Deslandes proposed a theory in Histoire comparée du cinéma (The Comparative History of Cinema), claiming that Le Prince voluntarily disappeared due to financial reasons and "familial conveniences". Journalist Léo Sauvage quotes a note shown to him by Pierre Gras, director of the Dijon municipal library, in 1977, that claimed Le Prince died in Chicago in 1898, having moved there at the family's request because he was homosexual; but he rejects that assertion.[18] There is no evidence to suggest that Le Prince was gay.[19]
Fratricide, murder for money
In 1967, Jean Mitry proposed, in Histoire du cinéma, that Le Prince was killed. Mitry notes that if Le Prince truly wanted to disappear, he could have done so at any time prior to that. Thus, he most likely never boarded the train in Dijon. He also wonders why, if his brother, who was confirmed as the last person to have seen Le Prince alive, knew Le Prince was suicidal, he didn't try to stop Le Prince, and why he didn't report Le Prince's mental state to the police before it was too late.[20]

Patents and camerasEdit

On 10 January 1888 Le Prince was granted an American patent on a 16-lens device that he claimed could serve as both motion picture camera (which he termed "the receiver or photo-camera") and a projector (which he called " the deliverer or stereopticon").[21] That same day he took out a near-identical provisional patent for the same devices in Great Britain, proposing "a system of preferably 3, 4, 8, 9, 16 or more lenses". Shortly before the final version was submitted he added a sentence which described a single-lens system, but this was neither fully explained nor illustrated, unlike the several pages of description of the multi-lens system,[22] meaning the single-lens camera was not legally covered by patent.

60mm spools used for developing film shot in single-lens camera. Each section would carry 4 frames of negative (1930 Science Museum, London)

This addendum was submitted on 10 October 1888[23] and, on 14 October, Le Prince used his single-lens camera to film Roundhay Garden Scene. During the period 1889-1890 he worked with the mechanic James Longley on various "deliverers" (projectors) with one, two, three and sixteen lenses. The images were to be separated, printed and mounted individually, sometimes on a flexible band, moved by metal eyelets. The single lens projector used individual pictures mounted in wooden frames.[23] His assistant, James Longley, claimed the three-lens version was the most successful.[23] Those close to Le Prince have testified to him projecting his first films in his workshop as tests, but they were never presented to anyone outside his immediate circle of family and associates and the nature of the projector is unknown.

In 1889 he took French-American dual citizenship in order to establish himself with his family in New York City and to follow up his research. However, he was never able to perform his planned public exhibition at Morris–Jumel Mansion in Manhattan, in September 1890, due to his disappearance.

Later recognitionEdit

Even though Le Prince's achievement is remarkable, with only William Friese-Greene and Wordsworth Donisthorpe achieving anything comparable in the period 1888-1890, his work was largely forgotten until the 1920s, as he disappeared before the first public demonstration of the result of his work, having never shown his invention to any photographic society or scientific institution or the general public.

For the April 1894 commercial exploitation of his personal kinetoscope parlor, Thomas Edison is credited in the US as the inventor of cinema, while in France, the Lumière Brothers are hailed as inventors of the Cinématographe device and for the first commercial exhibition of motion-picture films, in Paris in 1895.

However, in Leeds, Le Prince is celebrated as a local hero. On 12 December 1930, the Lord Mayor of Leeds unveiled a bronze memorial tablet at 160 Woodhouse Lane, Le Prince's former workshop. In 2003, the University's Centre for Cinema, Photography and Television was named in his honour. Le Prince's workshop in Woodhouse Lane was until recently the site of the BBC in Leeds, and is now part of the Leeds Beckett University Broadcasting Place complex, where a blue plaque commemorates his work. (coordinates: 53°48′20.58″N 1°32′56.74″W / 53.8057167°N 1.5490944°W / 53.8057167; -1.5490944). Reconstructions of his film strips are shown in the cinema of the Armley Mills Industrial Museum, Leeds.

In France, an appreciation society was created as L'Association des Amis de Le Prince (Association of Le Prince's Friends), which still exists in Lyon.

In 1990, Christopher Rawlence wrote The Missing Reel, The Untold Story of the Lost inventor of Moving Pictures and produced the TV programme The Missing Reel (1989) for Channel Four, a dramatised feature on the life of Le Prince.

In 1992, the Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) directed Talking Head, an avant-garde feature film paying tribute to the cinematography history's tragic ending figures such as George Eastman, Georges Méliès and Louis Le Prince who is credited as "the true inventor of eiga", Japanese for "motion picture film".

In 2013, a feature documentary, The First Film was produced, with new research material and documentation on the life of Le Prince and his patents. Produced and directed by Leeds-born David Nicholas Wilkinson, it was filmed in England, France and the United States by Guerilla Films.[24] The First Film features several film historians to tell the story, including Michael Harvey, Stephen Herbert, Mark Rance, Daniel Martin, Jacques Pfend, Adrian Wootton, Tony North, Mick McCann, Tony Earnshaw, Carol S Ward, Liz Rymer, and twice Oscar-nominated cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts. Le Prince's great-great-granddaughter Laurie Snyder also makes an appearance. It had its world première in June 2015 at the Edinburgh Film Festival and opened in UK cinemas on 3 July 2015. The film also played in festivals in the US, Canada, Russia, Ireland and Belgium. On 8 September 2016 it played at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York, where 126 years earlier Le Prince planned to show his films.

Le Prince Cine Camera-Projector typesEdit

Model Specs Design Manufacture Patents
16-lens camera and projector
Patent: "Method of and apparatus for producing animated pictures. of natural scenery and life" (USA) and in all later foreign patents.
Designation: LePrince 16-lens camera/projector
Framerate: 16 frames per second (according to patent)
Medium: Glass plates and Eastman paper film
1886, New York Made in Paris, 1887 US Patent No.376,247/217,809
2 November 1886
10 January 1888

FR Patent No.188,089
11 January 1888
June 1890 (and BR patent 423 - see below)

Single-lens camera Mk2
Patent: Mentioned but not described or illustrated in "Improvements in the Method of and Apparatus for Producing Animated Photographic Pictures"
Designation: Le Prince single-lens "receiver" (camera) Mk2
Framerate: 5-7 frames per second
Lenses: Viewfinder (upper) & Photograph (lower)
Film: sensitised paper film & gelatin stripping film (60mm)
Focus: lever (backward/forward)


*Frederic Mason
(body/ wooden parts)
*James William Longley (design and working parts)
Made in Leeds, 1888
BR Patent no 423

10 January 1888
16 November 1888 [Mentioned but not described]



Single-lens "deliverer" (projector). Each frame was printed on glass and mounted in a mahogany frame. These were moved before the lens in a continuous spiral. The heat of the lamp and the movement of the frames often caused the glass to break. Top framerate: 7fps. Leeds


Made in Leeds, 1889 Never patented
 3-Lens Projector 3-lens "deliverer" (projector), used frames mounted individually in three flexible strips of Willesden paper with brass eyelets to move them. Projection presumably alternated 1-2-3 between the three strips/lenses and each strip moved when the light was cut off. Leeds

1889/ 1890

Made in Leeds 1889 or 1890 Never patented


Remaining material and productionEdit

Back view of Le Prince's single-lens Cine Camera-Projector MkII opened (Science Museum, London, 1930).

Le Prince developed a single-lens camera in his workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, which was used to shoot his motion-picture films. Remaining surviving production consists of two scenes in the garden at Oakwood Grange (his wife's family home, in Roundhay) and another of Leeds Bridge.

Forty years later, Le Prince's daughter, Marie, gave the remaining apparatus to the National Science Museum, London (later transferred to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (NMPFT), Bradford, which opened in 1983 and is now the National Science and Media Museum). In May 1931, photographic plates were produced by workers of the Science Museum from paper print copies provided by Marie Le Prince.[2] In 1999, these were re-animated to produce digital versions. Roundhay Garden was alleged by the Le Prince family to have been shot at 12 frame/s and Leeds Bridge at 20 frame/s, although this is not borne out by the NMPFT versions (see below) or motion analysis, with both films being estimated at a consistent 7 frames a second.[25]

All available versions of these sequences are derived from materials held by the National Science and Media Museum.

Man Walking Around a Corner (16-Lens Camera)Edit

The only existing images from Le Prince's 16-lens camera are a sequence of 16 frames of a man walking around a corner. This appears to have been shot onto a single glass plate (which has since broken), rather than the twin strips of Eastman paper film envisaged in his patent. Jacques Pfend, a French cinema-historian and Le Prince specialist, confirms that these images were shot in Paris, at the corner of Rue Bochart-de-Saron (where Le Prince was living) and Avenue Trudaine. Le Prince sent 8 images of his mechanic running (which may be from this sequence) to his wife in New York City in a letter dated 18 August 1887,[26] which suggests it represented a significant camera test. Exposure is very irregular from lens to lens with some of the images almost completely bleached out, which Le Prince later on fixed.

Roundhay Garden Scene (Single-Lens Camera MkII)Edit

The 1931 National Science Museum copy of what remains of a sequence shot in Roundhay Garden features 20 frames. The frames appear to have been printed in reverse from the negative, but this is corrected in the video. The film's damaged edge results in distortion and deformation on the right side of the stabilised digital movie. The scene was shot in Le Prince's father-in-law's garden at Oakwood Grange, Roundhay on 14 October 1888. The NMPFT animation lasts two seconds at 24fps (frames per second), meaning the original footage is playing at 10fps. In this version, the action is speeded up - the original footage was probably shot at 7fps.

Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (Single-Lens Camera MkII)Edit

Video clip, 2 seconds

Louis Le Prince filmed traffic crossing Leeds Bridge from Hicks the Ironmongers[1] at the following coordinates: 53°47′37.70″N 1°32′29.18″W / 53.7938056°N 1.5414389°W / 53.7938056; -1.5414389.[27]

The earliest copy belongs to the 1923 NMPFT inventory (frames 118–120 and 122–124), though this longer sequence comes from the 1931 inventory (frames 110–129). According to Adolphe Le Prince who assisted his father when this film was shot in late October 1888, it was taken at 20fps. However, the digitally stabilised sequence produced by the NMPFT lasts two seconds, meaning the footage is playing here at 10fps. As with the Roundhay Garden sequence, its appearance is sped up, suggesting the original footage was probably shot at 7fps. This would fit with what we know of the projection experiments, where James Longley reported a top speed of 7fps.[28]

Accordion Player (Single-Lens Camera MkII)Edit

2 frames per second amateur remastering of all 19 frames; 10 frames per second version

The last remaining film of Le Prince's single-lens camera is a sequence of frames of Adolphe Le Prince playing a diatonic button accordion. It was recorded on the steps of the house of Joseph Whitley, Louis's father-in-law.[2] The recording date may be the same as Roundhay Garden as the camera is in a similar position and Adolphe is dressed the same. The NMPFT has not remastered this film. An amateur animation of the first 17 frames is here on YouTube. The running speed appears to be 5-6fps

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "BBC Education – Local Heroes Le Prince Biography". Archived from the original on 28 November 1999. Retrieved 27 May 2008.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link), BBC, archived on 28 November 1999
  2. ^ a b c Howells, Richard (Summer 2006). "Louis Le Prince: the body of evidence". Screen. Oxford, UK: Oxford Journals. 47 (2): 179–200. doi:10.1093/screen/hjl015.
  3. ^ THE "FATHER" OF KINEMATOGRAPHY: LEEDS MEMORIAL PIONEER WORK IN ENGLAND Our Special Correspondent. The Manchester Guardian (1901–1959), Manchester, England 13 December 1930: 19.
  4. ^ "Louis Le Prince, who shot the world's first film in Leeds". BBC. 24 August 2016.
  5. ^ a b "Pioneers of Early Cinema: 1, AIMÉ AUGUSTIN LE PRINCE (1841–1890?)" (PDF). www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk. p. 2. Retrieved 25 November 2012. he developed a single-lens camera which he used to make moving picture sequences at the Whitley family home in Roundhay and of Leeds Bridge in October 1888. ... it has been claimed that a photograph of a drowned man in the Paris police archives is that of Le Prince.
  6. ^ a b c Spehr, Paul (2008). The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson. United Kingdom: John Libbey Publishing Ltd.
  7. ^ "Archives Municipales de Metz - Visualiseur". Retrieved 9 May 2020.
  8. ^ [1] The birth certificate mentions "born August on the 28th, 1841 at 5am. The common mistake of making him born in 1842 comes from an article of Ernest Kilburn Scott, mistake made since then in numerous articles, including the one by Simon Popple
  9. ^ Aulas, Jean-Jacques; Pfend, Jacques (1 December 2000). "Louis Aimé Augustin Leprince, inventeur et artiste, précurseur du cinéma". 1895. Mille huit cent quatre-vingt-quinze. Revue de l'association française de recherche sur l'histoire du cinéma (in French) (32): 9–74. doi:10.4000/1895.110. ISSN 0769-0959.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Herbert, Stephen. "Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince". Who's Who of Victorian Cinema. Archived from the original on 21 July 2006. Retrieved 26 August 2006.
  11. ^ a b Thomas Deane Tucker (2020). Peripatetic Frame: Images of Walking in Film. Edinburgh University Press. p. 18.
  12. ^ a b c d Adventures in CyberSound: Le Prince, Louis Aimé Augustin, Dr Russell Naughton (using source: Michael Harvey, NMPFT Pioneers of Early Cinema: 1. Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince)
  13. ^ http://loveoakwood.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/National-Museum-of-Media-and-Film-Bradford-Louis-le-Prince.pdf
  14. ^ a b "The Shadow Traps". www.stitcher.com. Retrieved 4 November 2019.
  15. ^ Hannavy, John, ed. (2008). Encyclopedia of nineteenth-century photography. 1. CRC Press. p. 837. ISBN 978-0-415-97235-2.
  16. ^ "The mystery of Leeds's long-lost movie pioneer". 23 June 2015. Retrieved 9 May 2020 – via www.telegraph.co.uk.
  17. ^ Burns, Paul. "The History of the Discovery of Cinematography". – "After his disappearance, the Le Prince family led by his wife and son went to court against Edison in what became known as Equity 6928. The famous Patent Wars ensued and by 1908 Thomas Edison was regarded as sole inventor of motion pictures, in the US at least. However, in 1902, two years after Le Prince's son Adolphe had testified in the suit, he was found shot dead on Fire Island, New York."
  18. ^ Léo Sauvage, "Un épisode mystérieux de l'histoire du cinéma : La disparition de Le Prince", Historia, n° 430 bis, sept. 1982, p. 45-51: "une telle affirmation (...) est totalement dépourvue de vraisemblance".
  19. ^ Dembowski (1995): "Pierre Gras, conservateur en chef de la Bibliothèque publique de Dijon, en 1977, montra à Léo Sauvage une note (il la cite dans son ouvrage), prise lors de la visite d'un historien connu (il a tu son nom) qui avait déclaré : – Le Prince est mort à Chicago en 1898, disparition volontaire exigée par la famille. Homosexualité. Disons clairement qu'il n'y a pas l'ombre d'une preuve à l'appui d'une telle assertion."
  20. ^ Dembowski (1995): "S'il en était ainsi, pourquoi n'a-t-il rien fait pour l'empêcher de réaliser son funeste projet, pourquoi n'a-t-il pas averti la police à temps?"
  21. ^ "Method of and apparatus for producing animated pictures of natural scenery and life". 10 January 1888. Retrieved 29 December 2017.
  22. ^ "Patents Completed". British Journal of Photography. 35: 793.
  23. ^ a b c Aulas & Pfend, Jean-Jacques & Jacques (1 December 2000). "Louis Aimé Augustin Leprince, inventeur et artiste, précurseur du cinéma". 1895. Revue de l'association française de recherche sur l'histoire du cinéma. 32.
  24. ^ "The First Film". Guerilla Group. Retrieved 16 June 2018.
  25. ^ "Cinematography". National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. Archived from the original on 11 July 2006. Retrieved 16 April 2009.
  26. ^ Letter dated 18 August 1887 in Louis Le Prince Collection at Leeds University Library
  27. ^ "Google Earth Community: First Moving Pictures". Retrieved 9 May 2020.
  28. ^ Letter from James Longley to Louis le Prince 8 August 1889. "The best result that I got was 426 per minute" - From Le Prince Collection in Leeds University Library.


External linksEdit