As the legend goes, in 1872, the former California governor Leland Stanford asked the British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who had become famous on the West Coast for his stunning photographs of the Yosemite Valley, to help him settle an argument.
Stanford, who was also a railroad tycoon and racehorse aficionado, subscribed to the yet-unproven theory that, at some point in the running motion of a horse, all four of its legs left the ground completely so that the animal was completely suspended in the air. Stanford wanted Muybridge to capture this moment in the horse’s stride, an instance imperceptible to the naked eye. Muybridge told him he was crazy—no camera shutter could move that fast—but later accepted the challenge to produce one that could.
The photographer was ultimately able to prove Stanford’s claim, but not until 1878. And the story behind those groundbreaking images involved an affair, a murder and its subsequent trial, and a professional betrayal—and led to the photographer’s pioneering first steps toward film and cinema, which would eventually crown him the grandfather of the moving image.
To tackle Stanford’s dilemma of whether horses indeed engaged in “unsupported transit” during their trotting gait, Muybridge began experimenting with a bank of 12 cameras with trip wires, such that a horse moving down the racetrack would trigger photographs along the way. (For later studies on longer stretches of track, Muybridge would increase the number of cameras.) Stanford supplied the horse, “Sallie Gardner,” as well as a track on his estate in Palo Alto, California.
The same year he began working with Stanford, however, the 43-year-old Muybridge also married a local shop girl, the 21-year-old Flora Shallcross Stone, setting off an unfortunate chain of events in the artist’s personal life. Perhaps due to Muybridge’s frequent absences to pursue his photographic studies, Stone began an affair with a drama critic named Harry Larkyns. When Muybridge discovered the betrayal—some accounts say he found letters between them in which Flora referred to her and Muybridge’s seven-month-old son as “Little Harry”—he traveled to find Larkyns and shot him in cold blood, killing him instantly.
In the subsequent trial, Muybridge pleaded insanity caused by head trauma from an earlier stagecoach crash he had suffered in 1860, which witnesses testified left him erratic and unpredictable. Amazingly, the jury dismissed his claim of insanity but judged the case a “justifiable homicide,” letting Muybridge walk free. His work interrupted and his life in disarray, Muybridge went into self-exile in Central America, only returning to continue his work for Stanford in 1877.
And it was that year that he first succeeded in capturing an image of one of Stanford’s horses, this one named Occident, with all four legs off the ground. Yet the photographer soon faced another setback: The negative was lost, leaving only woodcut reproductions that weren’t widely accepted as proof. Not to be discouraged, he set out to create a camera with faster shutter speed, capable of capturing much shorter intervals of motion and eventually enabling him to record a previously unheard-of duration of two milliseconds—an astonishing technical achievement.
But it was in 1878 that he was finally able to complete his study, The Horse in Motion (Sallie Gardner at a Gallop). Armed with his faster shutter speed, Muybridge demonstrated conclusively that a horse’s legs, which had been represented in art incorrectly for thousands of years, did in fact all leave the ground at the same time while in a trot.
Even traditional representations that showed a running horse with its front legs extended forward and hind legs back were shown to be incorrect; Muybridge revealed that in fact, when all four legs leave the ground, they gather near the middle of the horse’s body.
Théodore Géricault, Le Derby de 1821 à Epsom, 1821. Collection of the Louvre. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
To better showcase his discoveries, Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope in 1879, a device that is credited as the first moving picture projector. Operating with rotating glass discs, the zoopraxiscope projected images onto each other in rapid succession, creating the illusion of movement. Though the earliest iterations required the images to be painted as silhouettes onto glass, later incarnations would use images printed onto the discs photographically, inching ever closer to the first cinematic projectors of the 1890s.
The invention of the zoopraxiscope made Muybridge an enormous draw when he lectured at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London in 1882—and this elevated profile couldn’t have come at a better time. In that same year, Stanford had commissioned a book entitled The Horse in Motion by Dr. J.D.B. Stillman, yet despite the inclusion of 100 drawings that were undoubtedly based on Muybridge’s work, the photographer received no credit. Believing Muybridge had plagiarized from Stillman, the Royal Society of Arts in London cut crucial funding to the photographer, and Muybridge responded by suing Stanford.
Though he lost the case, Muybridge continued to give frequent, well-attended lectures—aided by his use of the zoopraxiscope—which helped to convince the Royal Society that the findings were his own. It was not long before the photographer was readmitted to their ranks.
From 1884 to 1886, the University of Pennsylvania sponsored Muybridge’s further research, and the stability created by long-term employment allowed him to achieve his most scientifically important studies. During those years, he used multiple cameras to capture dazzling arrays of human and animal movements, ultimately publishing a resulting 781 images in his 1887 portfolio, Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Connective Phases of Animal Movements. The book would have a lasting influence on the fields of biomechanics and athletics.
Before he retired to England in 1900, where he would occasionally lecture until his death in 1904, Muybridge wowed audiences at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The exposition’s organizers built a special “Zoopraxographical Hall” to house Muybridge’s moving images. They charged viewers for entry, effectively creating the first commercial movie theater.
By then, a new generation of inventors—Louis Le Prince, William Dickson, and Thomas Edison among them—had developed competing motion picture projectors that outpaced the zoopraxiscope, and each of them owed a large part of their success to the fact that Muybridge, with his persistence and his patents, was able to settle a gentlemanly debate.