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.

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.

Imagine being able to experience the life of a person from the opposite side of the planet… 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.”

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” – 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.

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.

from The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures (Faber & Faber, £20)


Paul Fischer is an author and film producer based in the UK. His first book, A Kim Jong-Il Production (Penguin/Flatiron Books, 2015) was nominated for the Crime Writers’ Association’s Non-Fiction Book Award, and chosen as one of the Best Books of 2015 by NPR and the Library Journal. He has also written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Independent, Bright Wall/Dark Room,and the Narwhal, among others. 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). The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures is published by Faber & Faber.
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Author portrait © Sean Trayner