A movie murder mystery

July 23, 1999

If cinema was invented in Leeds by Augustin Le Prince, how come Thomas Edisonand the Lumiere brothers took the credit? Richard Howells suspects foul play

It is a truth not universally acknowledged that the cinema was invented in Leeds. The Americans attribute the great discovery to Thomas Edison, while the French credit the Lumi re brothers. The rest of the world wavers between the two. But in fact some believe that it is Leeds Bridge in Yorkshire that should be treasured as the birthplace of the moving picture.

Pictures taken and projected in Leeds pre-date the more famous footage shown in New York and Paris by at least six years. The cameras and some of the picture sequences survive today. But this is not simply a tale of patents and technical minutiae. It is also a tale involving two suspicious deaths - but only one body.

The story begins in 1886, when the Frenchman Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince arrived in Yorkshire to take up a partnership in Whitley Partners, a Leeds brass foundry. Victorian Leeds was home to a vibrant confluence of art, science and technology. When, three years later, Le Prince married Lizzie Whitley, his senior partner's daughter, the couple swiftly became active in the Leeds Literary and Philosophical Society, while also establishing the Leeds Technical School of Art, which they ran from their townhouse in Park Square.

When the Whitley Partnership ran into difficulties, Le Prince decided to move his family to New York, where he worked on a succession of design-related business interests. Inspired by his creation of then fashionable panorama scenes he began to explore the possibility of making the illusions move - of creating moving pictures.

In November 1886, he filed his first American moving picture patent application, a method and apparatus "For Producing Animated Pictures of Natural Scenery and Life" based on a complex, 16-lens camera and projection system. The prototype was made in Paris and the remains of this device can be seen today in the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford.

The patent was granted on January 10 1888, and on exactly the same day, Le Prince filed his British patent application, number 423. By then, he was back in Leeds, working on a simpler, single-lens camera.

It is this improved camera that Le Prince used to film his son Adolphe dancing and playing the melodeon in October 1888, followed by the extended Whitley family performing a restrained, Victorian version of the conga line in their garden that same afternoon. But it is Le Prince's footage of horse-drawn traffic passing over Leeds Bridge that has proved the most memorable, because this was also the first to be projected on to a screen.

Le Prince's work on projection took place at his workshop on a site now occupied by the BBC in Woodhouse Lane, Leeds. One night in July 1889, he succeeded in projecting the Leeds Bridge sequence by mounting gelatine positives on glass, which were in turn slotted into a continuous belt that passed in front of a powerful arc light.

But Le Prince knew he needed a stronger, lighter, heat-resistant yet transparent medium for the rapid projection of his images, and two months later, he took delivery of just the medium he needed - celluloid - and he began cutting the photographic sheets into cinematic strips.

Le Prince was so excited by this breakthrough that he dispatched Adolphe to New York to help Lizzie secure a suitable venue for the public unveiling of his moving picture system. They decided on the Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. For years, Le Prince had been working in secrecy, but it was now time for him to go public.

But go public he never did. On September 16, 1890, Le Prince boarded a train in Dijon, promising to meet friends in Paris. He was never seen again, alive or dead. To this day, his body has never been found or his disappearance explained. Lizzie and the Le Prince family immediately suspected foul play, especially as they saw the Lumieres and the Edison company take credit for what they saw as Le Prince's invention. Edison applied for his first moving picture patents in 1891, with the first kinematograph parlours opening in New York in 1894. The Lumi re brothers, meanwhile, staged the first commercial projected film show before in Paris in December 1895.

If Le Prince had filed his patents as early as 1886 and had filmed successfully in 1888, why did his family not pursue Edison and the others through the courts? The answer lay in American law, which would not consider a missing person dead until seven years after their disappearance. To his competitors, Le Prince was much more valuable missing than dead.

What the family did eventually do was ride "piggy back" on a patent dispute between Thomas Edison and the rival American Mutoscope Company. The action was brought in New York to determine whether or not "Thomas A. Edison was the original, first and sole inventor or discoverer" of cinematography. Mutoscope claimed, contrarily, that: "The apparatus for taking and exhibiting photographs of objects in motion was well and widely known prior to the alleged invention by the said Edison."

By appearing on behalf of Mutoscope, the Le Prince family hoped to exploit the case as a platform to win Augustin the recognition they believed he deserved.

The Le Prince family case was passionately researched by Adolphe, by then an undergraduate in chemistry at Columbia University. In an atmosphere of growing paranoia, Adolphe made a clandestine visit to Leeds to gather evidence and returned to New York complete with strips of photographs and, most importantly, his father's cameras. Adolphe finally testified in December 1898. In the event, of course, it was the young undergraduate who was exploited by the lawyers from both sides. The Edison attorneys attacked his evidence outright, but even the seemingly friendly Mutoscope team used Le Prince's son only as far as he attacked the Edison position. Had he been allowed to make too much of a case for his father, that would have damaged the Mutoscope case. To Adolphe's dismay and mounting exasperation, his father's cameras were never produced in court. The Edison team were consequently convinced that they had never existed.

Three years later, in 1901, the court gave its ruling: Thomas A. Edison was indeed the first and sole inventor of moving pictures. The following year, however, the decision was reversed on appeal: Edison was not the sole inventor after all.

Adolphe, however, did not live to hear the reversed verdict. One afternoon in July 1901, he was found dead with his duck hunting gun at his side near the family summer cottage on Fire Island in New York State. It may have been suicide; it could have been an accident. But Lizzie was convinced it was a second murder: the boy knew too much and had said so in court.

Academically, I cannot suggest that any individual was to blame for the deaths of Le Prince or Adolphe. But I do know that others profited hugely from Augustin's absence.

So, was Leeds really the birth-place of cinematography and was Le Prince its inventor?

At what stage can we say that an invention takes place? Is it at the intellectual stage, with the birth of an idea, or the technical stage, with the construction of a working prototype? Is it at the legal stage, with the filing of a patent, or at the commercial stage with the marketing of a system that reaches the public and makes money? Not one of the alleged "inventors" of the cinema can claim to have achieved each of these important "firsts".

Le Prince's patents, the cameras, and the photographs all speak for themselves. A reprinted version of the Leeds Bridge footage plays today for visitors to the Leeds Industrial Museum. There may be fewer than 20 frames, but they clearly work, and Le Prince's achievements pre-date the accomplishments of those with far greater reputations. What ultimately seems to separate Le Prince from the rest is that he never made any money from his invention.

Richard Howells is lecturer in communications arts at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. This article is based on a paper given to the 18th Annual Conference of the International Association of Media and History.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments