The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures by Christopher Rawlence
History as a concept was created within the human mind thousands of years ago. It most likely arose from tales told around flickering campfires of great deeds performed by fathers and mothers, dangerous beasts which were conquered, nourishing plants and fruits which were discovered and distinguished from poisonous ones. Gradually, even before the invention of writing, these stories were incorporated into ever more complicated sagas that involved not only wondrous accomplishments but details of day-to-day living. These sagas were handed down to succeeding generations who enlarged them and eventually used them as the bases of various religious practices. Virtually all of the really ancient religions devote extensive portions of their writings to the presentation of racial or ethnic history.
For most of the existence of the human race, history was confined to the spoken or written word. The evidence of activities and races of people who had vanished remained in the ruins of their civilizations that they left behind, of course, but the details of who they had been and how they had lived were at the whim of those who spoke or wrote of them or painted imaginative images in oil and canvas. At least, this was true until the Nineteenth century, when the dream of capturing an actual fragment of time - or history - in a way that it could be viewed by an endless number of eyes became a reality.
Most of this scientific advance came in Europe. The earliest known reference to photography comes in a letter from a French physician named Joseph Nicephore Niepce dated July 19, 1822, and the oldest surviving photograph is one taken by Niepce of a street view in 1827. These first efforts may seem crude to us today, but they finally allowed people to catch events as they flashed by and display them to others. The next obvious step was to develop photography to the point that it could do the same to actual motion.
The average person is likely to identify the almost legendary Thomas Edison as the "father" of motion picture photography. And while Edison is still credited with developing the first commercially successful motion picture process (in 1891) and giving the first public demonstration of moving pictures (in May of that year), he was not the first person to photograph and then display the activities of the world about himself. Even if we dismiss the claims of prior success by supporters of the Lumiere brothers in France - debate continues as to whether they beat Edison to the discovery, one man remains should be recognized as the true pioneer of the art, though his name is forgotten by all but a very few today.
Christopher Rawlence, author of The Missing Reel, was born in England in 1945, and brought up on a farm. He became interested in art, the theater, and films early on and studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art before teaching art history at University College in London. While teaching there, he became the co-founder of the Red Ladder Theatre, a politically aware company for which he acted, wrote, and directed. His interests have led him into films, and in 1988 he wrote and directed The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a psychological examination of the mind of an artist. Rawlence is married and the father of two daughters.
In spite of his education in the arts, Rawlence was as unaware of the French-born Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince as the average person until 1976, when he toured an old house in the Chapeltown area of North Leeds, England with an idea toward buying it. The house itself was slowly succumbing to age, and the local city counsel had begun to consider demolishing it. When this possibility was brought up, the man guiding Rawlence and his party through the residence responded that the house was of historical value, since it once belonged to Augustin Le Prince, the inventor of the motion picture. These first hints, inspired Rawlence to dig into the largely overlooked life of Le Prince and eventually resulted in the fascinating, if somewhat chaotic, The Missing Reel.
Augustin Le Prince was born on August 28, 1841 in Metz. His father was a career officer in the French army, a major of artillery in the service of Louis Philippe at the time of Le Prince's birth. Le Prince's early life was as nomadic as any other child of military man, and between 1855 and 1865, he attended a number of schools in the areas about Bruges and Paris. He often told his later family and friends that this early travel had awoken his imagination to the variety of life experiences available to him.
Le Prince attended the Universities of Bonn and Leipzig to study chemistry, mathematics, and German. In 1866, he became acquainted with John Whitley, the son of Joseph Whitley, an Englishman who was one of the "partners" in Whitley Partners, a brass founders (a manufacturing company dealing in pipes, valves, boilers, and virtually anything else having to with brass). John was in Paris largely to assess the business opportunities there, while Le Prince, who was from a financially comfortable background, had yet to decide upon a career. At that time, he was primarily traveling the continent and studying painting and photography.
Le Prince and Whitley quickly became friends, which resulted in Augustin accompanying the young Englishman back to Leeds and securing a position at Whitley Partners as a draughtsman and translator. It was at this point also that he met John's sister, Lizzie Whitley, who became an important part of his future.
The next several years were busy and exciting (in several ways) for Le Prince. He fell in love with Lizzie Whitley and married her in 1869, and only a year later he felt a call to duty as his native land was embroiled in the Franco-Prussian War, which led him to return to France to enlist in the National Guard. Almost immediately, Le Prince was taken prisoner by French police and imprisoned as an agent provocateur when foreign currency and return tickets to England were found in his pockets. The young man was in great danger of execution when representatives of a local newspaper and the British ambassador, Lord Russell, located him and convinced the authorities that Le Prince was no spy but a patriot who had returned to volunteer for service in defense of his nation.
Once this was cleared up, Le Prince succeeded in joining the National Guard. He soon saw action and survived the Siege of Paris later in the year.
Returning to Leeds in 1871, Le Prince felt emotionally sickened by the terrible things he had seen during his war experiences, and he was also physically ill due to the malnutrition he had undergone during the Siege. Life with his new family soon restored him physically and psychologically, however, and a daughter, Marie, was born to the young couple later that year, followed by son Adolphe in 1872.
1872 was also the year that another defining event in Le Prince's life took place, even though it did not directly involve him at the time. Eadweard Muybridge (born Muggeridge, 1830-1904) was an English photographer with a strong interest in the field of human and animal locomotion. In response to a pub bet, Muybridge was enlisted to attempt to either prove or disprove the idea that all four hooves of a galloping horse would leave the earth at the same instant. He undertook this effort in 1972 by setting up a number of cameras at regular spaces at the side of a track, each of which was connected to a tiny wire which would trigger its shutter as the racing horse broke the wire. In this way, Muybridge was able to settle the bet, and he also discovered that viewing these photos in sequence "fooled" the eye into perceiving motion. Working from this, the photographer developed a rotating cylinder and light source which allowed a primitive form of "projection" on a blank surface. Though this "zoopraxiscope" was not a true form of moving pictures, it clearly was a forerunner of the art that Le Prince soon took notice of.
Children continued to be born into the Le Prince family, and Augustin and Lizzie developed their artistic energies during this period, showing an exhibit of painting and ceramics at the 1875 Yorkshire Exhibition. That same year, Le prince left Whitley Partners, which was in the process of liquidation. In 1876, he and Lizzie founded the Leeds Technical School of Art.
From 1877-1885, the Le Prince family engaged in several business both in England and the United States (where they had emigrated in 1882), while Augustin began to take notice of Muybridge's rudimentary projection system. The incandescent lamp was perfected by the Edison company during this time, as was Eastman's paper roll-film, two hugely important steps in the…