Eadweard Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge

April 9, 1830 – May 8, 1904




In the world of motion pictures, Thomas Edison is usually credited with producing the first movies. His "kinetoscopes" were standard arcade fixtures as early as 1895. As was often the case with Edison, though, his innovations were built on the foundations of the inventors who worked before him. The cornerstone of this foundation is Eadweard Muybridge.   To capture motion on film a photographer must produce a series of still images that can be viewed sequentially at high speeds. If the images are viewed at greater than around fifteen frames per second, the eye can no longer distinguish individual photos, and the images are blurred together by the brain, simulating motion. Artists of the early 1800s used this principle - called the persistence of vision - to simulate motion with drawings. The simulator was a device called a zoetrope, and it consisted of a whirling drum with viewing slits through which the viewer could watch a series of drawings spin by. The rapid spinning of the drum combined with the careful alignment of the slits and pictures to create a sensation of movement. Muybridge was the first person to create a series of photographs that were suitable for this kind of use.   Eadweard Muybridge was born in 1830 in Kingston-upon-Thames England, named Edward James Muggeridge. By the time he was twenty-four he had moved to California and had changed his name, focusing on photography as a trade.   In the late 1860s the US government commissioned Muybridge to create a photographic survey of the Pacific Coast. While his primary interest in animal biomechanics and physiology was unfulfilled by such landscape portraits, his photographs of Alaska and the California coastline attracted the attention of a man who would become Muybridge's patron for the next twenty years.   California governor Leland Stanford was curious about his horse, Occident. Specifically, the governor wanted to know if all four hooves were ever off the ground at the same time while Occident galloped, so he hired the photographer whose landscape photographs had so impressed him - Eadweard Muybridge.   In 1872 the photographer created an intricate, sequential system of a dozen cameras, each with a tripwire, to photograph Occident galloping down the track. With each camera shooting in rapid succession, Muybridge hoped to catch the horse completely aloft in mid-stride. The experiment failed. With slow shutter speeds and exposure times, all that emerged from the darkroom was a very blurry image of a dark horse against a light background.   Soon after, despite a keen motivation to perfect this photographic form, Muybridge's experimentation with motion photography temporarily halted. In 1874 he was put on trial for murdering his wife's lover, and although acquitted, he spent the next several years abroad. Those years were not wasted however, because while traveling he improved the shutter speed of his cameras to 1/2000th second exposure time. This refinement was pivotal to his future successes, and in the development of all high speed motion photography.   In 1879 with these improvements and an extra-sensitive (and thus faster) emulsion paper Muybridge succeeded in creating a sequence of photographs that proved that all four of the horse's feet were at some moments simultaneously airborne. For some reason such news created a furor that swept through the sporting and equestrian press, so Muybridge published the complete series of photographs in many magazines. Some unknown but observant person soon recognized that these simple pictures could be used in the zoetrope drums that had so long been used with drawings. Finally the true usefulness of these sequential photographs of animals in motion was revealed.   Inspired by the success of the horse series, Muybridge created a large assortment of such biomechanical studies, including men jumping and cartwheeling. To further assist the sense of simulated motion, he combined various innovations of the time and invented a viewing machine he called a zoopraxiscope.   This early projector relied on the same principal as the zoetrope, but added a powerful light, transparent film and a projecting lens. The photographs spun rapidly on the periphery of one disk while in front spun another disk with carefully spaced viewing slots. The slot isolated the image, projecting it for only an instant, until the next image and slot aligned, and then the next, creating the illusion of motion.   So inspiring and revolutionary were these basic movies that in 1883 the University of Pennsylvania provided Muybridge with large amounts of financial backing. He traveled throughout the world lecturing on the lessons he had learned about animal locomotion. By the time of his death in 1904, Muybridge had amassed over 100,000 photographs of animals, and had published two separate studies of locomotion, Animals in Motion, and The Human Figure.   Three years later an employee in Edison's lab, William K.L. Dickson would create the first camera and projector using long strips of transparent film spooled continuously by a system of cogs and sprockets - the kinetograph and kinetoscope. However it was Muybridge's scientific vision of capturing motion on film that enabled this later comercial innovation, inspired a powerful art form and initiated an entire era of educational, political and entertainment photography.