Eadweard Muybridge was not always “Eadweard Muybridge.” He was born in England as “Edward James Muggeridge,” and after several attempts at creating a satisfying moniker, he settled on the surname “Muygridge” for a while. Not only was he dissatisfied with his name, he wanted a different life, so he immigrated to San Francisco in his 20s and established himself in book publishing.
He was successful until fate intervened. In 1860, a stagecoach accident left him with a serious head injury, and he returned to England to recover. While he made a full recovery physically, his personality become noticeably eccentric, which manifested itself in some dramatic ways.
While convalescing in England, Muybridge was introduced to photography which he pursued passionately. He returned to San Francisco in the mid-1860s and re-established himself as a photographer named “Muybridge.” He specialized in landscape and architectural subjects and gained a reputation and following for his breathtaking reproductions of Yosemite. This led to a government contract to shoot the new Alaskan territories, and he expanded his work to other locations in the West.
With a burgeoning career, he was able to finally settle on an identity. He changed the spelling of his first name in the 1870s to “Eadweard” and thus branded himself as “Eadweard Muybridge.”
Muybridge came to the attention of Leland Sanford, former governor of California, president of the Central Pacific Railroad and horse breeder. Sanford solicited his help in solving a popular debate among the equestrian set. Sanford believed that at some point while a horse is trotting, all four legs are off the ground at the same time, but he didn’t know how to prove it. Legend has it that a $25,000 bet was a motivating factor in Sanford’s urgency to getting this question resolved.
Muybridge was intrigued by this challenge and pursued photographic evidence of the supposition whole heartedly until he was sidetracked by an inconvenient incident in his personal life. Muybridge’s wife was having an affair, and Muybridge assumed the son she bore belonged to a Major Harry Larkyns. Not wanting to be the fool, Muybridge went to Larkyns’ home, confronted him with his suspicion and then shot and killed him.
Fortunately, Muybridge’s life was not ruined even though he was tried for murder. Thanks to his brain injury 14 years earlier, he had a defense: insanity. Thanks to his relationship with Sanford, he had the money for a good lawyer. Even though many friends testified to Muybridge’s mental instability, the jury didn’t buy it and dismissed the insanity plea. Muybridge was acquitted, however, as the jury ruled his behavior as “justifiable homicide.” What good news for Muybridge: he wasn’t insane, and he got away with murder, literally!
After the trial, Muybridge let things cool down and spent some time working in Central America before returning to his collaboration with Sanford. In 1877, Muybridge took a single photograph that proved that horses do indeed, briefly have all four legs off the ground while galloping. As luck would have it, however, that negative was lost.
Sanford was a determined man, and he insisted on more definitive evidence. Muybridge once again rose to the challenge. He set up a series of cameras along the side of the track to cover the total distance of a horse’s stride. Each camera had a trip wire attached to the shutter that was triggered by the horse’s hooves.
The series of photographs was called The Horse in Motion and successfully proved that Sanford’s hunch was right. (Click on photo to see animation.) All four hooves are off the ground at the same time, but not when the legs are fully extended front and back as most illustrators had pictured. Instead, the horse is airborne at the moment when all four legs are under the body and the weight is being shifted from the front legs to the hind legs.
In order to view the photos, Muybridge created a contraption called a zoopraxiscope. A strip of the successive images was mounted on a spinning glass disc and viewed through slits. The swift rotation of images caused them to merge in the viewer’s mind thereby giving the illusion of movement. In 1880 after a reporter had seen a public demonstration of the zoopraxiscope, he wrote in the San Francisco Call, “Nothing was wanting but the clatter of hoofs upon the turf and an occasional breath of steam from the nostrils, to make the spectator believe that he had before him genuine flesh-and-blood steeds.”
Muybridge’s photos were published, and he hit the lecture circuit in the US and Europe. His curiosity didn’t stop at horses, and he replicated the technique of taking successive shots to record motion and documented people and animals moving in various ways.
Muybridge’s invention became the inspiration for Thomas Edison (who holds the patent for the motion picture camera), Philip Glass (who wrote an opera in 1982 based on Muybridge’s murder trial), the music video for the song “Lemon” by U2 (“A man makes a picture – a moving picture/Through light projected he can see himself up close“), and the slow motion bullet special effect in the movie The Matrix.
QUESTION: What invention would you like to see developed? How would that help your life?
© 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved