History Wrapped in a Detective Story
Who invented motion pictures?
It was Thomas Edison, right? Everybody knows that. Well, Americans know that. The French claim that movies were invented by the Lumière brothers.
Both answers are wrong. A number of people worldwide contributed to the invention of movies, but the person who did the most—who shot a brief motion picture scene in 1888, six years before Edison set up his first motion picture studio—was a man named Louis Le Prince, who until recently was relatively unknown.
One thing that changed that oversight was a book I just read, The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures. In this fascinating account, Paul Fischer traces the movies’ beginnings, including Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential photographs of horses trotting, Auguste and Louis Lumière’s early camera and projector, and Thomas Edison’s efforts to sweep in, claim credit, and prevent others from capitalizing on the invention.
From among all these early efforts emerges Louis Le Prince, a Frenchman who moved to Leeds, England, and then to New York City, and who, before becoming obsessed with the idea of moving pictures, had never invented anything in his life. He worked on the project for years, and just as he succeeded, something happened that hid him from history and allowed Edison to claim credit.
On September 16, 1890, Le Prince boarded a train from Dijon, France, to Paris and was never seen or heard from again.
Thus Paul Fischer’s tale of the movies’ early days becomes a detective story. This remarkable twist reminded me of Erik Larson’s books: meticulously researched history with a hook.
Thanks in part to Fischer, Louis Le Prince is now being recognized for his dogged and doomed work on the curious invention that, arguably, changed the world.