THE MISSING REEL by Christopher Rawlence


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The story of the disappearance of French inventor Augustin Le Prince, who in 1890 vanished from a train between Dijon and Paris while on his way to Washington, D.C., to patent the first singe-lens movie camera. Rawlence found himself obsessed by the mystery; then various clues led him to grandchildren of Le Prince in Memphis, Tenn., where he uncovered an old leather briefcase full of the memoirs of Lizzie Le Prince, Augustin's wife, who was determined to restore her husband's patent while demolishing rival patents. What seems clear is that a patent officer was bribed to strike a vital passage from Le Prince's final patent submission, the clause describing the camera's 'single-lens feature. What was left in the patent was a description of a Le Prince camera with 16 lenses. Rawlence reconstructs Le Prince's life from Lizzie's bitter and incomplete memoirs, from the notes of Le Prince's devoted son, from the testimonies of friends and witnesses, and from the records. Did Thomas Edison, who claimed to have invented the movie camera, have Le Prince kidnapped and murdered? Did Le Prince flee his family because he was one breath short of bankruptcy while one vastly dispiriting step short of success? Was he gay, and did he run off with a man? Even with a woman? Lizzie's hired detectives could find no clue. Rawlence recycles the well-documented life of the Wizard of Menlo Park, along with Le Prince's more elusive development as an inventor, while simultaneously following the detective work of Lizzie, the efforts of son Adolphe to rectify the patent situation, and his own efforts in the present to track down the phantom inventor; he invents several passages to suggest Le Prince's mind and actions. Seemingly impossible to solve, the mystery of Le Prince's disappearance must remain inherently unsatisfying, but Rawlence's search is absorbing, especially when about inventive genius.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Atheneum