The oldest surviving film

August 7, 2013

While Thomas Edison and/or the Lumiere brothers are popularly credited with the invention of the moving picture – something which Edison, a notorious credit taker did little to discourage – history suggests otherwise. As, indeed, does this very short film clip, shot in Roundhay, near Leeds in 1888 by inventor Louis le Prince.

Weighing in at 2.11 seconds long, ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’ was filmed at Oakwood Grange, the family home of Le Prince’s wife, Elizabeth Whitely. It features Elizabeth’s parents Joseph and Sarah (the latter died ten days after the film was made) and the Le Prince’s son Adolphe. The film was taken using Le Prince’s invention: the Single Lens Camera Projector MkII* and is the oldest known film.

Le Prince used the camera to make further recordings: one of trams, horse-drawn carriages and people crossing Leeds Bridge, the other of his son Adolphe playing the accordian. The Leeds Bridge scenes were projected onto a screen in the city, making it the first ‘cinema’ experience.

Patents and several successful recordings in hand, Le Prince set his sights on America. In 1890, he travelled to his native France to visit family before making preparations to travel to America to promote his inventions. On the 16th of September, his brother saw him onto the Paris train at Dijon; Le Prince was never seen or heard from again. No luggage, no body, no sign of a struggle. A search of the railway line revealed nothing. The French police and Scotland Yard, despite extensive investigations, were unable to solve the mystery, which remains to this day – although a photograph of a drowning victim from 1890, bearing a resemblance to Le Prince was uncovered in Paris Police archives in 2003. Le Prince was officially declared dead in 1897.

Recent years have seen a revival of interest in his story – and, indeed, in recognition of his achievements. Academic film and cultural historians now view Le Prince as the father of cinema.

Louis Le Prince

Louis Le Prince

* An American patent for the MkI had been refused on the grounds of an ‘interfering patent’; several years later, the same patent, submitted by Thomas Edison, was granted unopposed.





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