Podcast Episode 306: The Inventor Who Disappeared


In 1890, French inventor Louis Le Prince vanished just as he was preparing to debut his early motion pictures. He was never seen again. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the possible causes of Le Prince’s disappearance and his place in the history of cinema.

We’ll also reflect on a murderous lawyer and puzzle over the vagaries of snake milking.


In 1826, schoolteacher George Pocock proposed a carriage drawn by kites.

George Sicherman discovered an alternate pair of six-sided dice that produce the same probability distribution as ordinary dice.

Sources for our feature on Louis Le Prince:

Christopher Rawlence, The Missing Reel: The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures, 1990.

Thomas Deane Tucker, The Peripatetic Frame, 2020.

Adam Hart-Davis, ed., Engineers: From the Great Pyramids to the Pioneers of Space Travel, 2012.

Jenni Davis, Lost Bodies, 2017.

Charles Musser, “When Did Cinema Become Cinema?: Technology, History, and the Moving Pictures,” in Santiago Hidalgo, ed., Technology and Film Scholarship: Experience, Study, Theory, 2018.

Richard Howells, “Louis Le Prince: The Body of Evidence,” Screen 47:2 (Summer 2006), 179–200.

John Gianvito, “Remembrance of Films Lost,” Film Quarterly 53:2 (1999), 39-42.

Irfan Shah, “Man With a Movie Camera,” History Today 69:1 (January 2019) 18-20.

Violeta María Martínez Alcañiz, “The Birth of Motion Pictures: Piracy, Patent Disputes and Other Anecdotes in the Race for Inventing Cinema,” III Congreso Internacional Historia, Arte y Literatura en el Cine en Español y Portugués, 2015.

Atreyee Gupta, “The Disappearance of Louis Le Prince,” Materials Today 11:7-8 (July-August 2008), 56.

Justin McKinney, “From Ephemera to Art: The Birth of Film Preservation and the Museum of Modern Art Film Library,” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 33:2 (September 2014), 295-312.

Denis Pellerin, “The Quest for Stereoscopic Movement: Was the First Film Ever in 3-D?”, International Journal on Stereo & Immersive Media 1:1 (2017).

Ian Youngs, “Louis Le Prince, Who Shot the World’s First Film in Leeds,” BBC News, June 23, 2015.

Kevin Brownlow, “The Inventor Vanishes,” New York Times, Nov. 18, 1990.

“How Is the Technology That Was Used to Reconstruct the Oldest Film in History?”, CE Noticias Financieras, English ed., May 13, 2020.

Chris Bond, “Leeds Celebrates Its Film Pioneer,” Yorkshire Post, Oct. 24, 2017.

Adrian Lee, “Whatever Happened to the True Father of Film?”, [London] Daily Express, June 29, 2015.

“Louis Le Prince: Time to Honour Cinema’s Forgotten Pioneer,” Yorkshire Post, Sept. 16, 2013.

Troy Lennon, “Movie Pioneer Caught in a Disappearing Act,” [Surry Hills, N.S.W.] Daily Telegraph, Oct. 14, 2008, 38.

Kieron Casey, “The Mystery of Louis Le Prince, the Father of Cinematography,” Science+Media Museum, Aug. 29, 2013.

Listener mail:

Agnes Rogers, How Come? A Book of Riddles, 1953.

Wikipedia, “Lateral Thinking” (accessed July 25, 2020).

Edward de Bono’s website.

Wikipedia, “Situation Puzzle” (accessed July 25, 2020).

Paul Sloane, Lateral Thinking Puzzlers, 1991.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Eric Ridenour.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 305: Cast Away in the New World


Marooned in Florida in 1528, four Spanish colonists made an extraordinary journey across the unexplored continent. Their experiences changed their conception of the New World and its people. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable odyssey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his reformed perspective on the Spanish conquest.

We’ll also copy the Mona Lisa and puzzle over a deficient pinball machine.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 304: The Dog Who Joined the Navy


The only dog ever enlisted in the Royal Navy was a Great Dane who befriended the sailors of Cape Town in the 1930s. Given the rank of able seaman, he boosted the morale of British sailors around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Just Nuisance and his adventures among the sailors who loved him.

We’ll also examine early concentration camps and puzzle over a weighty fashion.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 303: Camp Stark


In 1943, the U.S. established a camp for German prisoners of war near the village of Stark in northern New Hampshire. After a rocky start, the relations between the prisoners and guards underwent a surprising change. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Camp Stark and the transforming power of human decency.

We’ll also check out some Canadian snakes and puzzle over some curious signs.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 302: The Galápagos Affair

Image: Smithsonian Institution Archives

In 1929 a German couple fled civilization to live on an uninhabited island in the Eastern Pacific. But other settlers soon followed, leading to strife, suspicion, and possibly murder. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Galápagos affair, a bizarre mystery that remains unsolved.

We’ll also meet another deadly doctor and puzzle over a posthumous marriage.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 301: Tschiffely’s Ride


In 1925, Swiss schoolteacher Aimé Tschiffely set out to prove the resilience of Argentina’s criollo horses by riding two of them from Buenos Aires to New York City. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Tschiffely’s unprecedented journey, which has been called “the most exciting and influential equestrian travel tale of all time.”

We’ll also read an inscrutable cookbook and puzzle over a misbehaving coworker.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 299: Ursula Graham Bower and the Nagas

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1937, Englishwoman Ursula Graham Bower became fascinated by the Naga people of northeastern India. She was living among them when World War II broke out and Japan threatened to invade their land. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Bower’s efforts to organize the Nagas against an unprecedented foe.

We’ll also consider a self-censoring font and puzzle over some perplexing spacecraft.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 298: The Theft of the Mona Lisa


In 1911, the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre. After an extensive investigation it made a surprising reappearance that inspired headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the painting’s abduction, which has been called the greatest art theft of the 20th century.

We’ll also shake Seattle and puzzle over a fortunate lack of work.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 297: A Sinto Boxer in Nazi Germany


In the 1930s, Sinto boxer Johann Trollmann was reaching the peak of his career when the Nazis declared his ethnic inferiority. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Trollmann’s stand against an intolerant ideology and the price he paid for his fame.

We’ll also consider a British concentration camp and puzzle over some mysterious towers.

See full show notes …