Finding Lizzie Le Prince

Cutting edge artists have always looked to advances in science for new materials and techniques. But where our innovations centre on digital media and information technology, the crossover science of the Victorian era was chemistry. We owe today’s rich visual culture to the pioneers who mastered the interactions of chemicals, minerals, ceramics, celluloid and light.

Lizzie Le Prince was the daughter of Sarah and Joseph Whitley of Leeds. She trained under Carrier-Belleuse at the Sèvres pottery in France, and in 1869 she married Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, also a student of pottery. Louis had been instructed by Louis Daguerre, inventor of the Daguerreotype, and specialised in applying photographic techniques to pottery and brass.

The Le Princes settled in England where Louis started work for the Whitley family brass-founding business. It’s clear that the marriage was a true partnership. They both joined the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. Together they ran the Leeds Technical School of Art from their townhouse in Park Square, providing training in materials which were literally the new media of their age. Lizzie records that in Park Square Louis began experimenting with “moving photographs” and the best materials for films.

In 1881 the couple moved to New York where Lizzie taught art at the Institute for the Deaf. Louis is said to have projected his first moving pictures on the walls of that building. Lizzie is described as “a splendid helpmate”. In October of 1888, back in Lizzie’s parents’ garden in Roundhay, was recorded the world’s oldest surviving motion picture. The dating is precise because the pictures show Lizzie’s mother who died just a few weeks later.

By 1890, the Le Princes were ready to go public with the invention, well ahead of rivals including the Lumière brothers and American Thomas Edison. Lizzie had by this time founded the New York Society of Ceramic Arts and held regular meetings in Manhattan’s Jumel Mansion. Assisted by her son Adolphe, she began preparing for a public unveiling in New York. It should have been a grand occasion securing Louis’ place in history as the inventor of the the cinema.

But Louis never arrived back in New York. He was last seen at Dijon, boarding a train to Paris. Wild rumours surrounded his disappearance and Lizzie suspected foul play. She believed competitors including Edison himself had wanted her husband out of their way.

Lizzie Le Prince spent the following decades in America trying to prove Louis’ claim to be the inventor of cinema. Her tragedy was compounded by Adolphe’s unexplained death in 1901, shortly before a judge delivered a verdict in favour of Edison’s motion picture patent which the Le Prince family had contested.

A number of articles have sought to posthumously restore Le Prince to his rightful place in cinematic history. One of his cameras is in the National Media Museum at Bradford, and Leeds has not one but two blue plaques commemorating him. “Roundhay Garden Scene” is listed in the Guiness Book of Records and can be seen on Youtube. Sarah and Joseph Whitley are the oldest born actors to be credited in the Internet Movie Database.

But today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science. From my reading of the story, Lizzie Le Prince is equally deserving of the honour, not as the tragic, devoted wife and mother that she clearly was, but as an artist, technologist, educator and advocate.

Fittingly, the wonderful Sydney Padua illustration for this year’s Ada Lovelace Day shows the world’s first computer programmer in Victorian dress holding up a string of punched cards…

Ada Lovelace Day 2010

Replace those punched cards with a reel of celluloid (the first reel of celluloid!) and you have Lizzie Le Prince. Should the credit for the first moving pictures really go to a husband and wife team?

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!


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