Louis Le Prince is well-known for being a key component in the invention of the early motion picture camera – with many praising him as the ‘Father of Cinematography’. Yet not so many people are aware of his later years, and seemingly only Le Prince knows what ultimately happened. This is because Le Prince mysteriously vanished from a train in 1890, and he was never seen again. Many theories have been put forward to explain his disappearance. In this article, we explain the life of Le Prince, and look at the theories surrounding his disappearance.
Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841. He was interested in Art, Photography and Chemistry as a youngster. After completing his studies at University, he moved to the United Kingdom. The following years saw Le Prince excel with art, before he began experimenting with photography. He was able to eventually design a camera that used multiple lenses. The camera had flaws, but he attempted to improve it with a new design, which was lauded as well, well ahead of its time.
In 1888, Le Prince was granted a patent in the United States for a device which was able to perform as a motion picture camera and projector. Therefore, this acted in a similar, but less advanced way, than modern-day cinematography. This action was followed up by an effort to submit a similar patent in the United Kingdom. These patents came as the result of considerable hard work. Le Prince had intended on exhibiting his work at a public show in Manhattan. Yet, just days prior to the show, he disappeared.
Le Prince had visited family in France in the days prior to the show. After completing his visit, he left on a train from Bourges to Paris, with his brother seeing him board the train. Yet when the train arrived in Paris, Le Prince was nowhere to be seen. It emerged that Le Prince hadn’t been seen by anyone on board, and no corpse or luggage was found during a large search. Despite a big search, no trace of Le Prince was ever found, and he was declared legally dead in 1897.
- Suicide: There have been some suggestions that Le Prince was on the verge of bankruptcy. To get out of this, perhaps Le Prince may have taken his life. Le Prince could’ve done so in a way that ensured no one would find his body. The trip to see his family beforehand could be seen as a farewell visit. However, his family suggest his business was profitable – and set to get more lucrative after the public exhibition. Therefore, some suggest there wasn’t a reason for him to take his own life.
- Assassination: There was significant competition to attain patents around this time – with technology too leading to battles between inventors. Le Prince had many rivals – including Thomas Edison. Le Prince had been due to patent his projector around the world soon after his disappearance, which could’ve led to an assassination effort. The timing of Le Prince’s disappearance certainly support this theory. His family too presumed foul play in his disappearance. However, there has never been any evidence of this theory being true, and questions over where Le Prince’s body ended up too is unknown.
- Exiled by Family: While this is a widely-criticised theory, some believe it. There has been speculation that Le Prince was homosexual, and that his family had subsequently ordered him to move away. No one saw Le Prince get on the train other than his brother, so maybe this was a cover story, and Le Prince went somewhere else. But questions over whether or not a 49-year old man would bow to his family like this remain.
- Faked Death: It has also been suggested that Le Prince could have faked his own death, before starting a new life. While Le Prince seemed to have every reason to live his current life, perhaps he secretly wanted change. The disappearance could have been a ploy to start a new life.
- Fratricide: The final popular theory is that Le Prince’s brother might have killed him, or was paid money to keep his death quiet. In any case, it is conceivable that his brother didn’t see him get on the train, and that this was a cover story. While there are no known motives, it is still a possibility.
In 2003, there was an unexpected update in the case, despite the trail being cold for over 100 years. A photo emerged of a drowning person, which appeared to resemble Le Prince. The photo appeared in Police archives from France, but hasn’t been released. Of course, there is no way of ever knowing it is true. But if it is, it would add credence to the suicide theory – if Le Prince opted to take his own life by drowning. His name has also arose in recent years in terms of recognition of his work, yet he isn’t profoundly known unlike some of his peers.
It is unfortunate that Le Prince isn’t mentioned as much as others in terms of his impact on the world. Yet he has left behind a legacy. A plaque commemorates his work in Leeds, England, with the plaque saying how Le Prince filmed footage of the Leeds bridge, in what was ‘probably the world’s first successful moving pictures’. His disappearance has left behind a legacy, and has many theories which seem to make sense. It is a shame that he disappeared before his enormous talent could be entirely fulfilled. We’ll never know what happened, or what might’ve been.