French inventor Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, filmed and released on 14 October 1888, is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving film. Later that same month, he filmed Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge and Accordion Player. Though he did make an earlier film, 1887’s Man Walking Around a Corner, that was shot onto a glass plate instead of paper film.
Roundhay Garden Scene features Le Prince’s in-laws, Joseph Whitley (1817–12 January 1891) and Sarah Robinson Whitley (1816–24 October 1888), and Annie Hartley, a friend of Le Prince and his wife Elizabeth. Sadly, Sarah died ten days after the film was shot.
Though the Lumière Brothers usually get all the credit for inventing the movies as we know it, Le Prince had them beat by seven years. While Le Prince’s early films obviously didn’t lead to the commercial popularity of cinema, he was still making films well before 1895.
Sadly, he mysteriously disappeared from a train in France on 16 September 1890, and thus was unable to stage a planned public demonstration of his work in the U.S. His body and luggage were never found, and he was declared dead in 1897.
In 2003, a photo of an 1890 drowning victim resembling Le Prince surfaced (no pun intended) in Parisian police archives. Multiple theories about the reason for his disappearance vary—suicide to avoid impending bankruptcy; assassinated in a motion picture patent war; ordered to leave by his family because he was allegedly gay (though zero evidence exists of his supposed homosexuality); murdered by his brother in a dispute over their mother’s will.
In 1898, Le Prince’s son Adolphe testified in a court case between Thomas Edison and the American Mutoscope Company. Edison named himself as the sole inventor of cinematography, and claimed he deserved royalties from his former employee William Kennedy Dickson’s rival company.
Adolphe wasn’t allowed to present his father’s two cameras as evidence, and the court ruled in favor of Edison. A year later, the ruling was overturned.
In the same period of 1888–90, William Friese-Greene (who awesomely added his wife’s surname to his with a hyphen!) and Wordsworth Donisthorpe also invented early moving picture cameras, but Le Prince still beat them to the punch with successfully capturing moving images.
The surviving ten frames of Donisthorpe’s first successful film, 1890
In Leeds, England, Le Prince is celebrated as a local hero. On 12 December 1930, a bronze memorial plaque was unveiled by his former workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane, which was also the BBC’s Leeds station till recently. It’s now part of the Leeds Beckett University Broadcasting Place complex. A second, blue plaque there celebrates his work further.
In 2003, the University of Leeds Centre for Cinema, Photography, and Television was named after Le Prince, and in France, an appreciation society exists in Lyon. His life has been the subject of several books and documentaries, most recently 2015’s The First Film.
On 8 September 2016, The First Film had its U.S. début by the Morris-Jumel mansion in NYC, where Le Prince’s first public film screening would’ve taken place in 1890, had he not disappeared.
Who would’ve guessed a two-second film of people in a Leeds garden would lead to 130 years, and counting, of cinema?