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The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures

A True Tale of Obsession, Murder, and the Movies

About The Book

One of the New York Times Best True Crime of 2022

A “spellbinding, thriller-like” (Shelf Awareness) history about the invention of the motion picture and the mysterious, forgotten man behind it—detailing his life, work, disappearance, and legacy.

The year is 1888, and Louis Le Prince is finally testing his “taker” or “receiver” device for his family on the front lawn. The device is meant to capture ten to twelve images per second on film, creating a reproduction of reality that can be replayed as many times as desired. In an otherwise separate and detached world, occurrences from one end of the globe could now be viewable with only a few days delay on the other side of the world. No human experience—from the most mundane to the most momentous—would need to be lost to history.

In 1890, Le Prince was granted patents in four countries ahead of other inventors who were rushing to accomplish the same task. But just weeks before unveiling his invention to the world, he mysteriously disappeared and was never seen or heard from again. Three and half years later, Thomas Edison, Le Prince’s rival, made the device public, claiming to have invented it himself. And the man who had dedicated his life to preserving memories was himself lost to history—until now.

The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures pulls back the curtain and presents a “passionate, detailed defense of Louis Le Prince…unfurled with all the cliffhangers and red herrings of a scripted melodrama” (The New York Times Book Review). This “fascinating, informative, skillfully articulated narrative” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) presents the never-before-told history of the motion picture and sheds light on the unsolved mystery of Le Prince’s disappearance.

Excerpt

1. The Train (September 16, 1890) THE TRAIN September 16, 1890
The train to Paris, which had been expected at 2:37 p.m., pulled in five minutes behind schedule.

Albert Le Prince didn’t see his younger brother, Louis, very often anymore. Louis had moved away from France over twenty years ago—and if that wasn’t enough, lately he had been consumed by his work on a mysterious moving picture machine. Now Louis had come to visit, delighting Albert’s four children. The children were still grieving their mother, who had died just three and a half years earlier, a week before her thirty-eighth birthday. Louis had a way with young people. He took them—three girls and one, the youngest, a boy—on long walks through the parks of Dijon, enchanting them with descriptions of New York City, where his wife and children lived—the restless metropolis that was growing bigger day by day, overtaking London as the largest city in the world; a city of mansions built by bankers hoarding their fortunes and of tenements bursting with immigrants seeking their own; a city Thomas Edison had spent the last decade filling with electrical light. Dijon, by comparison, seemed tame, so provincial it may as well have existed in a different reality. He told them stories of his own five children, all about the same ages as their cousins, who were waiting for him in that city. On evenings when Albert was detained at work, Louis sat with them at home, entertaining them and giving them English lessons, correcting their pronunciation and suggesting books for them to read. His lists of recommendations were endless, from fiction to textbooks. Uncle Louis had a curiosity about the world, about the way things worked, about chemistry and engineering and art. He shared that curiosity with them as if it grew more bountiful for being spread around, and it did. Marie, writing later of spending time with her uncle, described it as a delight.1

The visit, however, was brief: three days. It would be Louis’s last for the foreseeable future. His moving picture device, Louis confided to Albert, was all but finished. As soon as he was back in Leeds, in the north of England, where he had been working on the invention, he would return to the United States with it, this time for good. His assistants in Leeds had packed up the machines in special padded traveling cases; his wife had rented a historic mansion in uptown Manhattan, as a venue from which to unveil to the world this most modern of inventions. Nearly all the arrangements had already been made.

Louis and Albert were less comfortable together than Louis was with his nieces and nephew. When the middle-aged brothers spoke—“not,” Marie wrote of her father, “as much as he wished to do”2—the conversation was often about money, of which neither brother had much at hand, Louis having spent the best part of a decade experimenting in animated photography, Albert adapting to life as a widower and single father. Louis was sure the motion picture device would change all of this. It was the kind of creation, according to him, that could alter the course of humankind. Imagine being able to experience the life of a person from the opposite side of the planet: to see how he existed, and to understand the rhythms of his world. Imagine doing so not through the pages of a book, but as if you had been transported instantly into that faraway place, and it existed vividly in front of your eyes, with all its sights and sounds. Imagine such a tool being used in education, entertainment, science, and diplomacy. Was that not certain to revolutionize the human experience, as drastically as the railroad and telephone had?

Louis spoke of these possibilities often. He believed in them with a fire he had never felt for anything else.

Albert—older, more levelheaded; a man who made money constructing necessary buildings—may have had his doubts.

The weekend passed; Monday arrived. On Tuesday the sixteenth, a sweltering day, Louis awaited the afternoon express back to Paris, from where he would make his way—via Brittany, London, Leeds, and Liverpool—back to America.

Later, after it had become clear that September 16, 1890, was one of the defining days of his life, Albert traced the steps he had taken that Tuesday. He replayed every word said and every gesture made. He told his sister-in-law—Louis’s wife—about walking him to the platform, and, he said, told the police every detail as well.

The train station at Dijon was less than a kilometer away from Albert’s home on rue Berbisey in the city center, a strip of elegant white stone town houses belonging to the city’s merchants and politicians. Albert’s was one of the smaller, more modest buildings, its ground-floor windows opening right out to the sidewalk.

Under a kilometer, from there to the station: fifteen minutes by foot, substantially less by horse-drawn carriage, past the twin towers and central spire of the gothic Cathédrale Sainte-Bénigne rising over the town. It was just after midday and the streets were busy. Until the railway had come to the city in the 1850s, Dijon had been on the decline: long home to royalty and nobility, seat of the influential fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Duchy of Burgundy, much of it was destroyed in 1789 by revolutionaries and rioters. For sixty years its infrastructure sat unrenewed, its streets grew filthy, swaths of its surrounding countryside wasted away unused. Dijon was, Victor Hugo wrote in 1839, “melancholy and sweet,”3 proud but lethargic, gallant but impoverished.

Then the steam train came, connecting Dijon to Paris to the north and Marseille to the south and to dozens of towns and hamlets in between. Now, from the beating heart of the terminal in the center of town, tracks branched out in all directions like arteries, pumping life into the municipality. The streets around the depot filled with shops and restaurants, and suburbs spread outside the city’s ancient walls to accommodate a growing population. This was Dijon as Louis and Albert saw it that day: vibrant and entrepreneurial, fast urbanizing and industrializing.

Louis, Albert, and Albert’s children arrived at the paved forecourt outside the train station. Le Prince originally intended to travel on the morning train, but after Albert was detained by a professional appointment, Louis had chosen to wait so he could properly say his goodbyes. As Albert later related it, they had reconvened at midday, settling the matters they had not managed to discuss in the previous three days, mostly about a family inheritance to be divided between the two of them; and then “all the family went to the station with [Louis]; he was in good spirits, and while waiting for the train laughingly showed his nieces the little trinkets he had purchased for his daughters as souvenirs.”4 Louis was meeting friends in Paris, with whom he would sail back to England, by night ferry to Britain’s southern coast, then by rail to Leeds. It was Tuesday; by Friday Louis Le Prince planned to be aboard a steamer pulling out of Liverpool with its bow aimed at New York.

As the locomotive pulled in, they made their goodbyes. If Louis’s embrace with his brother was particularly effusive—or, on the contrary, unusually restrained—Albert did not record it in any retellings of the day. Louis collected his luggage and boarded the train. Albert later said he had seen him do so. His daughter, twenty-one-year-old Marie, confirmed it.

In Paris, Mr. Richard Wilson, banker of Leeds, Yorkshire, and his wife waited for Louis Le Prince.

Wilson and Le Prince had been friends for nearly twenty years. They were members of the same institutions, Richard was Louis’s banker, and he owned several pieces of Louis’s art. They had traveled to France together and then gone their separate ways: Richard and his wife to sightsee, Louis to meet his brother in Dijon. They had agreed to meet again in Paris for the journey back to England.

But Louis did not appear.

At some point that night or the next day, unable or unwilling to delay their return home any longer, the Wilsons made their own way back to Calais. Wilson did not appear to feel undue concern. Perhaps he assumed Louis had decided to stay in Dijon a little longer, whether by choice or by obligation. Le Prince was usually a courteous man, and while he could have used either the telegraph or one of the new telephones, by now installed in every French rail station, to give Wilson advance warning of this change of plans, it wasn’t uncommon, in those early days of long-distance communication, for this sort of thing to happen. Someone was delayed, something unforeseen had come up, you would simply see them a few days later than expected.

So the Wilsons boarded the ferry alone, presuming Louis was still with Albert in Burgundy. It would be weeks before anyone realized Louis Le Prince was, in fact, gone. Somehow, somewhere between Dijon and Paris, he had vanished.

About The Author

Photograph by Sean Trayner

Paul Fischer is an author and film producer based in the United Kingdom. His first book, A Kim Jong-Il Production has been translated into twelve languages. It was nominated for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Nonfiction Book Award. It was chosen as one of Library Journal’s Top Ten Books of the Year and one of NPR’s Best Books of the Year. It was also nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award for History & Biography. Paul has also written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Independent, amongst others. In addition to writing, he works as a film producer and is an alumni of the Guiding Lights mentorship program. His first feature screenplay, The Body, based on a short film of his conception, was produced by Blumhouse and Hulu in 2018, starring Tom Bateman (Vanity Fair), Rebecca Rittenhouse (The Mindy Project), Aurora Perrineau (Truth or Dare), David Hull (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and Ray Santiago (Ash vs. Evil Dead). 

Why We Love It

“This book tells a story that has been lost to history. It will make you sit up in your seat, and it might even make your hair stand up on end. It is a story about the man who made the first motion picture and about his son, who took his father’s rivals to court in a sensational lawsuit to reclaim that legacy. It is a story about the power of vision, of how a person can make the impossible possible, and about the dangers of obsession, of how a person’s single-minded focus can ruin a family. It is a story full of magic, mystery, and, possibly, murder. After all, it is about the movies.”

—Emily G., Senior Editor, on The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 19, 2022)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982114824

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Raves and Reviews

“A passionate, detailed defense of Louis Le Prince…unfurled with all the cliffhangers and red herrings of a scripted melodrama.”
—New York Times Book Review, editor's choice

“Lively…Mr. Fischer documents with the rigor of a historian and the flair of a true-crime writer.”
—Wall Street Journal

“Tantalizing…Fischer helps us see how revelatory motion pictures were at the time…[a] reminder of how inventiveness can breed fresh hope along with innovation.”
—Washington Post

“Riveting…a compelling saga of both familial and scientific struggle.”
—Washington Independent Review of Books

“An absorbing tale, elegantly written and brilliantly told, with the plot twists and surprise ending worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster.”
—The Irish Times

"Fischer combines firsthand accounts with dynamic writing to bring the Victorian era to life...compelling reading."
Library Journal

“With a spellbinding, thriller-like presentation supported by painstaking research, Fischer puts forth evidence to try to unravel the mystery of Le Prince's life and death. Deftly organized facts, coupled with the technical minutiae of filmmaking, reveal fascinating details of Le Prince's life and the challenges faced in his work, while also exposing the mysterious circumstances surrounding his disappearance. Fischer's stellar, suspenseful narrative is a work of art unto itself that finally gives Le Prince—and the impact of his often overlooked, cut-short creative genius—his due.“ 
Shelf Awareness

"Vivid character sketches, lyrical descriptions of the art and science of moviemaking, and a dramatic plot twist make this a must-read."
Publishers Weekly, starred review

"A fascinating, informative, skillfully articulated narrative of one of the forgotten figures in cinematic history."
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Part detective story and part scientific journal, Fischer’s narrative will appeal to true crime afficionados, history buffs, movie fans, and engineers—what other book can claim that audience?—as it presents a possible alternate history...”
—New York Journal of Books

"Paul Fischer’s detailed and dramatic study of the life of the French inventor Louis Le Prince is a story of elusive images and unexplained death…The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures is an impressive piece of historical research [and] wonderful storytelling."
—Times Literary Supplement

“Probing a still-unsolved mystery at the heart of the world’s most popular art form, the result is both absorbing, forensic and jaw-dropping."
—Total Film

“An absorbing account of the life and mysterious death of Louis Le Prince…Fischer brings sharp forensic skills and a cool head to a narrative that has become hijacked by wild conspiracy theories.”
—Sunday Times

“An exhaustively researched look into not only the Frenchman’s life, but the history of photography and the attempts to move from visual still lifes to actual motion.”
—The Daily Beast

"If Edison is the father of moving film, Louis is its godfather—the original mastermind behind the industry. In his investigative history The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures, author and filmmaker Paul Fischer rekindles Louis's legacy and speculates about his disappearance."
—The Washington Free Beacon

"A real-life story of technology, skulduggery, and courtroom battles."
—Christian Science Monitor

"A deeply involving but also somber book that provides Le Prince with the respect he should have received during his lifetime."
The Film Stage

"A captivating whodunit [and] a lens on the development of cinema itself...Briskly paced and elegant...Indisputably dramatic."
Harper's Magazine

"The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures is partly a fascinating history, partly a surprisingly twisted whodunit, and entirely an insightful story of the very human intrigue and interests behind one of the most influential technologies of our time. Take a bow, Paul Fischer."
—Deborah Blum, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Poison Squad and the Poisoner's Handbook

"The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures sheds surprising new light on the brutal 19th century inventor wars that led to something we now take for granted: our ability to watch people on celluloid act out stories that move us, make us laugh, make us cry, and change our lives. Paul Fischer brings the forgotten father of the modern movie, Louis Le Prince, to life in big-screen detail, and delivers a gripping tale that holds its own against any Hitchockian thriller." 
—Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia and When Women Invented Television

"Most people believe Thomas Edison 'invented' the motion picture. But filmmaker and author Paul Fisher here tells the fascinating and largely-forgotten true story of Louis Le Prince, the actual inventor (with patents to prove it) of this world-changing technology. In 1890, just as Le Prince was scheduled to astound the world with the first public viewing of his astonishing invention, he mysteriously disappeared. In Fisher’s meticulous and entertaining history, we meet Le Prince’s rival inventors, with all their travails and triumphs — including a dark and ruthless Edison. Not only does Fisher make the case that Le Prince is the real father of the motion picture, he has also persuasively solved the 130-year-old mystery of Le Prince’s disappearance and death. A terrific book!"
Jill Jones, author of Empires of Light and Eiffel's Tower

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