Louis le Prince shot the first film – but did he invent movies?

Louis Le Prince’s 1888 frames of Leeds Bridge.

The spookiest feeling I have had, in several decades of looking at old silent films, is watching an old lady dressed in bonnet and long dress, shuffling around the driveway of a house in Roundhay, Leeds.

The woman is Sarah Robinson Whitley, who was born almost 200 years ago, in 1816. I was suddenly struck with astonishment that I was seeing someone born before Queen Victoria, less than 30 years after the French Revolution and at a time when it was still legal for British citizens to own slaves, actually moving. Not as a result of digital enhancement, but under her own steam and filmed as it happened.

This two-second sequence was shot by Sarah’s son-in-law on Sunday October 14 1888, and is the earliest known film from a single-lens camera. His story – that of Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, known as Gus to his Yorkshire relatives – has recently resurfaced. A new film, The First Film, is touring the UK, so you may well already know the poignant tale of “the man who first invented cinema”.

Le Prince’s efforts to claim rights to his inventions by filing patents, while simultaneously trying to keep his research and development under wraps, meant he was was involved in a high-risk project which he expected would create significant income. Understandably, he was reluctant to go public until he was ready. But then, in 1890, he disappeared while in France.

The mystery of his death remains. His pioneering work was overtaken by others, including William Dickson, Thomas Edison, the Skladanowskys and the Lumieres. His family waited for some years, their distress made worse by their inability to intervene in the patent wars between Edison and American Mutoscope, over what they saw as Le Prince’s invention. He could not be declared dead for seven years – by which time the wars were over.

So does this make him the archetypal lone genius who failed? Or perhaps he is the forgotten hero who really did get there first. Or is he one of several inventors who collectively worked on what became cinema?

The inventor

It’s the popular conception of the individual genius which is the problem here, as Richard Howells has outlined in his careful and detailed study of the evidence for Le Prince’s claim. There is a particular tendency towards national partisanship. Who invented television, for example? John Logie Baird (say the British), or Philo Farnsworth, or Charles Jenkins (USA), or Boris Rosing and Vladimir Zworykin (Russians)?

It may depend on who has a higher profile; for example Logie Baird’s secret work on radar is claimed to pre-date and exceed in importance that of its “father”, Robert Watson-Watt.

Even the definition of what has been invented may occur only after the fact. Le Prince’s claim hinges on whether inventing cinema includes projection or not – and if he achieved it. Who decides the rules?

Some argue that inventions are culturally determined, but technical innovation is unpredictable and subject to individual vagaries. On the other hand, the concession that an individual genius stands on the shoulders of giants doesn’t quite add up, either. If several people follow similar lines of enquiry simultaneously, as in the case of moving pictures, who’s the genius?

Indeed, like Edison later, Le Prince may have visited Etienne-Jules Marey, a scientist interested in human movement and cited by Laurent Mannoni as “the real founding father of cinematographic technique”. Marey had invented a camera which took 20 images per second and publicly showed them on October 29 1888. He did not project them either. So who was first? Who influenced whom?

Just a game

“Who came first” may be a good game, but Le Prince doesn’t fit any of the archetypes anyway. We cannot ignore his primacy in the search for moving image production, but neither can we offer him the laurels. He patented his work, but there was no public demonstration.

Periodically scholars and filmmakers revisit the mystery, like Christopher Rawlence in 1989 – and there might yet be more to find out, assisted by the recent gift of some important Le Prince papers to the Leeds Literary and Philosophical Society (of which, by an elegant coincidence, Le Prince was a member in the 1870s) and now held by Leeds University Library.

Like his mother-in-law Sarah Whitley, Le Prince comes more alive the more we know about him; a middle-class family man gambling his dwindling funds on a project that might have kept his family comfortable for years to come. He saw the potential for showbiz. Like many inventors, he didn’t quite complete the race, but his efforts were important indicators of what could be done in that era.

Technical innovation is always a story with several protagonists, even if each one is also a hero in his own right. Le Prince deserves our admiration for what he did, and for his vision, even while he might have been ahead for only a short while. It’s for this that he gets the dedication in the book Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (1996), which simply (and movingly) states: “To Gus, who came so close, but got lost along the way”.