The bet that led to moving pictures
When a horse is running or trotting, do all four hooves ever leave the ground at the same time? That was the wager that the former Governor of California, Leland Stanford had with some of his friends. There was much controversy in horse racing circles at the time, and though most people believed that a horse always has one hoof in contact with the ground, Stanford thought otherwise. Because a horse’s legs are moving so fast, it’s impossible to tell just by looking, so he needed a way to slow down the movement so it could be studied.
In 1872, Stanford offered Eadweard Muybridge, a world-famous photographer of landscapes $25,000 to find the answer. Muybridge wasn’t quite sure he could set up and perform an experiment to settle the dispute, but with that much money at stake he agreed to take on the challenge.
In most 19th century cameras, a 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 such 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
In 1879 he invented the Zoopraxiscope, a device with counter-rotating discs that projected the images sequentially. Now one could actually see a representation of 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 hoofs upon the turf and the occasional breath of steam to make the spectator believe he had before him the flesh and blood steeds."
He 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 in Motion (1901). The latter created quite a
stir at the time for it’s use of nude male and female models.
Though Thomas Edison is usually credited with creating the first movies in 1889, 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.
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