‘Flashback’ Lecture Notes: The Mysterious Disappearance That Helped Give Rise to Hollywood
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the birth of Hollywood owes a surprising amount to the untimely demise of a single Frenchman.
In the final episode of the first season of Flashback, OZY’s chart-topping history podcast, we learn about the mysterious disappearance of the French inventor Augustin Le Prince and the repercussions that event would have on modern filmmaking.
In 1890, Le Prince, who had developed the world’s first motion picture camera years ahead of Thomas Edison, boarded a train in France during the first leg of a trip meant to end in New York City — where the inventor planned to reveal his dazzling movies to the public. But Le Prince vanished on that train, and motion picture history went off in an entirely different direction without him.
You can listen to the episode here, and then enjoy digging deeper into the story in my Lecture Notes below.
The Mysterious Disappearance of a Forgotten Filmmaker
Could Le Prince have become the father of motion pictures had he survived? “The very fact that his method was essentially the same as those used later by the Lumières, Edison and others strongly suggests that he was indeed on track had he succeeded,” says Toni Booth, associate curator at the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, where Le Prince’s historic cameras are kept. But Le Prince is really just a historical footnote now. “As far as his place in cinema history,” says Richard Howells of King’s College’s department of culture, media and creative industries, “it’s a case of ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’” Read more on OZY.
The First Home Movies
In October 1888, the 48-year-old Le Prince asked his son Adolphe and his in-laws to walk in a circle in the garden at his home in Roundhay in Leeds, England, in front of his single-lens camera, housed in a large mahogany box. Over the next year, Le Prince would also film his brother Albert playing the accordion as well as a shot of pedestrians and carriage traffic on Leeds Bridge, 20 frames of which still survive. Both the Roundhay Garden and Leeds Bridge scenes survive and are believed to represent the first moving pictures shot using film and a single-lens camera.
Roundly Garden Scene
Thomas Edison and Hollywood’s Sordid Start
After Le Prince vanished, his American rival Edison would come to dominate the early motion picture business and technology, including through securing numerous patents. Edison’s vise grip on the early industry was so strong that a group of independent filmmakers moved to Southern California in search of diverse landscapes for filming and, most importantly, federal courts less inclined to enforce patent rights. Read more on OZY.
Patents, Then and Now
Patents are critical to ensuring the success of inventions, and this was especially the case in Edison and Le Prince’s day. Christopher Rawlence, author of The Missing Reel: The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures, shared with me how patents help retain control on the commercial exploitation of invention, something that remains critical today, including in the race for drug companies to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.