The invention of the movie camera is, ironically, a story worthy of Hollywood.
In 1888, the renowned American inventor Thomas Edison drew up plans to build a camera which could record moving images onto a cylinder. Within a few years, colleagues had produced a more sophisticated device that captured images onto a reel of 35mm photographic film – which remains the standard format.
But even as Edison started work, a French artist seemed to have beaten him to the punch. Louis Le Prince had already built a single-lens camera, and in 1888 used it to make a brief silent movie of people walking in a garden.
As the oldest movie in existence, Roundhay Garden Scene appears to be proof that Le Prince should be credited with inventing the first movie camera. Yet his claim to priority remains controversial because just before patenting his device and taking it on tour in America, in September 1890, Le Prince vanished. His wife suspected foul play, and in 2008 a magazine claimed that evidence had emerged showing Edison had arranged Le Prince’s assassination.
Yet while Edison certainly had a motive, the ‘evidence’ has never been substantiated, and the mystery of Le Prince’s disappearance remains unsolved.
Robert is a science writer and visiting professor of science at Aston University.