The Unsettling History Behind The World's First Movie

Clearly movies are a hugely important part of our cultural lives today. New releases flood our streaming services all the time, and movie theaters still hold a big appeal, too. In short, we love films. But did you ever wonder what the first one was? There must, after all, have been one particular movie that started all of this, right? Well, while there are a few motion pictures that might lay claim to the honor, there’s a general consensus that one called Roundhay Garden Scene was actually the first. But the story behind it is way, way darker than you might ever have guessed. This is a tale of great rivalry, celebrity, a shocking disappearance, and even a possible conspiracy at play.

An early start

The man who made Roundhay Garden Scene was Louis Le Prince, a French inventor born in 1841. Le Prince was arguably primed to achieve the things he did right from the start of his life; while he was a kid, he used to hang out in the studio of Louis Daguerre, his dad’s pal. For anyone who doesn’t know, Daguerre is a huge name in the history of photography.

Daguerre was one of the leading figures in the development of image technology. His invention of what he called the daguerreotype revolutionized photography, helping it to spread around the globe and ultimately setting us on the road towards today’s image-focused modern world.

The daughter of the boss

When he got older, Le Prince went to college to study chemistry and art: two areas of study that would ultimately serve him very well indeed. He later secured employment in a factory run by Joseph and Sarah Whitley, which is how he met their daughter Elizabeth.

Le Prince and Elizabeth fell for each other and eventually they tied the knot. They then set up an art school in the English city of Leeds, within which they experimented with photography techniques and technologies.

Pioneers of cinema

By the 1880s Le Prince was becoming increasingly preoccupied by more novel image technologies. Motion pictures were in development, with a number of other thinkers and inventors of the day taking an interest. These included figures such as the Brits William Friese Greene and Wordsworth Donisthorpe, the German Skladanowsky brothers, and Le Prince’s compatriot Etienne-Jules Marey. These were men trying to pioneer cinematic technology, and there’s a debate today as to which one achieved the feat first.

As Toni Booth, the associate curator of the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, put it to the BBC, “You will find people making cases for particular individuals. There is still some debate, and I think it comes down to definition. The definition of film and the definition of cinema.”

Getting a feel for film

What Booth was getting at is that a “film” can be interpreted in different ways. For example, in 1878 a man named Eadweard Muybridge set up 12 cameras in a line. He then photographed a horse running past each camera, and, using a device he invented, he presented the images in such a way as to make it seem like the horse was running

Can this sequence of the horse be considered to be a “film”? Some might say so, but David Wilkinson, a producer and distributor, doesn’t buy into the idea. He told the BBC, “[Muybridge is] getting a feeling of movement, but he’s not really capturing the movement like film cameras do.”