The Mysterious Disappearance of Louis Le Prince

A version of this article first appeared in my column for Classic Movie Hub, in March 2020. I revised it a bit for REALLY Old Films Month.

If I challenged you to name the first person who ever shot moving images on film, how would you respond? “Thomas Edison”? “The Lumière brothers”? “William K.-L. Dickson,” if you’re a film history buff? Maybe you would try to be smart and shout “Eadweard Muybridge!” Not a bad guess, my friend–but I did say “on film.”

While it’s often debated who should be credited for inventing moving pictures per se–this debate would include Muybridge and the inventors of various optical illusion toys–the first man to shoot images on familiar film strips was the distinguished-looking Louis Le Prince. A true pioneer of the cinema, his story is extraordinary not just for what it tells us about his contributions to a brand-new art form, but for how it ends–in a tragic mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

The mystery of Louis Le Prince | National Science and Media Museum
The distinguished-looking Le Prince.
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What Is The World’s Oldest Film?

Historians usually date the “birth” of the cinema to December 28th 1895, when August and Louis Lumiére hosted the first public showing of their films to a curious audience in Paris. The idea of movies (however “primitive”) existing in the 1890s surprises us today, yet amazingly enough, movies have been around even longer than that.

We don’t know exactly what the first film ever recorded was–but we do have the earliest surviving film. As there’s only a fragment of it remaining, to be precise we better call it the world’s oldest piece of film. This is what has been named The Roundhay Garden Scene, dating from–wait for it–1888. Continue reading