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.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

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 292: Fordlandia

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1927, Henry Ford decided to build a plantation in the Amazon to supply rubber for his auto company. The result was Fordlandia, an incongruous Midwestern-style town in the tropical rainforest. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the checkered history of Ford’s curious project — and what it revealed about his vision of society.

We’ll also consider some lifesaving seagulls and puzzle over a false alarm.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 291: Half-Safe


In 1946, Australian engineer Ben Carlin decided to circle the world in an amphibious jeep. He would spend 10 years in the attempt, which he called an “exercise in technology, masochism, and chance.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Carlin’s unlikely odyssey and the determination that drove him.

We’ll also salute the Kentucky navy and puzzle over some surprising winners.

See full show notes …

In a Word

n. a wayfarer; traveler

adj. likely to cause harm or damage

adj. exploding or detonating

adj. in heaps

British director Cecil Hepworth made “How It Feels To Be Run Over” in 1900. The car is on the wrong side of the road. (The intertitle at the end, “Oh! Mother will be pleased,” may have been scratched directly into the celluloid.)

Hepworth followed it up with “Explosion of a Motor Car,” below, later the same year.



“The only way to keep ahead of the procession is to experiment. If you don’t, the other fellow will. When there’s no experimenting there’s no progress. Stop experimenting and you go backward. If anything goes wrong, experiment until you get to the very bottom of the trouble.” — Thomas Edison

The Paternoster Vents

Image: Wikimedia Commons

At the end of a narrow pedestrian alleyway off Paternoster Square near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London are a pair of stainless-steel “angel’s wings” 11 meters high. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick, the sculpture actually serves a practical purpose: It provides ventilation for an electrical substation below ground. Cool air is sucked in through grids on the ground, and hot air is conducted through the sculpture and released high overhead.

“The commissioner had been exploring options that involved creating a single structure that housed both inlet vents and outlet vents,” Heatherwick wrote. “It made a large bulky object that dominated the public square around it, reducing it to little more than a corridor. As this was a sensitive location near St. Paul’s, we decided to make it our priority to shrink the visible mass of the vent structure to a minimum.”

(From Mary Acton, Learning to Look at Sculpture, 2014.)



“The actual building of roads devoted to motor cars is not for the near future, in spite of many rumors to that effect.” — Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 2, 1902

“That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical character have been introduced.” — Scientific American, Jan. 2, 1909

Water Music

The hydraulophone is a “woodwater” instrument: By fingering holes, the player stops the flow of of a fluid, but in this case the fluid is water. (The actual sound-producing mechanism can vary.)

Because the spray can obscure the finger holes, they’re sometimes marked in Braille, and the whole instrument can be built into a hot tub for use in cold weather.

The Bramante Staircase

Image: Wikimedia Commons

These spiral stairs, in the Pio-Clementino Museum in Vatican City, take the form of a double helix — there are two heads and two feet, so that one party can descend while another ascends and the two will never meet.

Designed in 1932 by Giuseppe Momo, the stairs are modeled on a much earlier stair by Donato Bramante, which occupies a square tower in the Belvedere palace of Pope Innocent VIII. Like the museum stair, it allows traffic to travel in both directions without impediment.

An Early Voice

On October 21, 1889, Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder made two audio recordings on Thomas Edison’s new cylinder phonograph. The first contains a congratulatory message to Edison and an excerpt from Faust, the second a line from Hamlet.

This is the only voice recording we have of a person born in the 18th century — Moltke had been born in 1800, technically the last year of that century. Ironically, he had been known as der große Schweiger, “the great silent one,” for his taciturnity.