The Science of Moving Pictures

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe.

In 1872, Leland Stanford offered photographer Eadweard Muybridge $25,000 to perform an experiment. Muybridge wasn't sure he could do it, but with so much money at stake, he took on the challenge.

When a horse is running or trotting, do all four hooves ever leave the ground at the same time? That was the basis of the wager that Leland Stanford, former governor of California and founder of Stanford University, made with some friends. This was the subject of much controversy in horse racing circles at the time. Most people believed that a horse always had one hoof in contact with the ground, but Stanford thought otherwise. Because a horse's legs are moving so fast, it's impossible to tell just by looking, so Stanford needed a way to slow down the movement so it could be studied.


In 1872, Stanford offered Eadweard Muybridge, a world-famous landscape photographer, $25,000 to find the answer. Muybridge had no idea if he could successfully set up and perform an experiment to settle the dispute, but he figured he'd give it a go.


In most 19th-century cameras, the picture was taken when the photographer removed the lens cap for several seconds in order to expose the film and capture an image. The subject had to remain perfectly still during this time or the resulting photograph would be blurred. In order to capture very fast action like a galloping horse, the exposure time would have to be very short.


Muybridge invented a fast shutter mechanism that relied on a small piece of wood with a hole drilled in it that slid past the lens. The wood was positioned so that a pin held it in place, covering the lens. When the pin was removed, gravity would cause the wood to drop and as the hole moved past the lens, the film was exposed for a fraction of a second.


The first time Muybridge tried taking a photograph as a horse ran by he didn't get much of an image at all. He tried various methods of making the shutter move faster and faster to shorten the exposure time, and as he did the quality of the image began to improve. Finally he hit upon the idea of using two pieces of wood and slipping them past each other so quickly that he could achieve an exposure time of about 1/500th of a second. That solved the problem of capturing a reasonably clear image of a horse at a gallop, but he still had to settle the bet.


In 1874, his work was interrupted when he shot his wife's lover -not with a camera, but with a gun. Muybridge suspected the miscreant (now a dead miscreant) was the father of a child his wife had born earlier that year. Muybridge was imprisoned until his trial in February 1875. At the trial he was acquitted -thanks to the lawyer that Stanford had hired for him- but afterward he decided to leave the country for a while and dropped his experiments until his return to California in 1877. He then continued his work on increasing the shutter speed until he had reduced the exposure time to 1/2000ths of a second.


Once Muybridge was satisfied with the quality of the images, he had to figure out a way to capture several images in sequence. He decided to place several cameras in a row all pointing in the same direction and to trigger them in sequence as the horse galloped past. He attached strings to all the camera shutters and stretched them across a track, and the cameras would take their pictures one at a time and in sequence.


In 1878, after years of experiments, Muybridge got what he wanted. He had a sequence of 12 images, and one of them clearly showed all four of the horse's hooves were off the ground at the same time. It was the first successful photographic representation of a sequence of movement and it made Muybridge internationally famous. And relatively prosperous. He collected his well-earned $25,000 from Stanford.


In 1879 he invented the zoopraxiscope, a device with counter-rotating discs that projected the images sequentially. Now an observer could actually see the horse galloping -and the effect was truly stunning. After a public showing in San Francisco, a reporter gushed, "Nothing was wanting, but the clatter of hooves upon the turf and the occasional breath of steam to make the spectator believe he had before him the flesh and blood steeds."

(YouTube link)


Muybridge continued his experiments using more cameras and photographing the motions of other animals and later did extensive studies of human movement. He eventually published his photographs in a portfolio called Animal Locomotion (1887) and two books: Animals in Motion (1899) and The Human Figure (1901). The latter created quite a stir at the time for its use of nude male and female models.

(YouTube link)


Thomas Edison is usually credited with creating the first movies in 1889, but it was the work of Eadweard Muybridge -and a $25,000 bet- that provided the cornerstone of Edison's invention and the evolution of motion pictures.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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