Leland Stanford (1824-1893), who wore such hats as California governor, railroad baron, university founder and race horse owner, sought to settle one of the hottest debates of the 1870’s: Is there a moment in a horse’s gait when all four hooves are off the ground at once?
Legend says he bet $25,000 that it was true. Common opinion at the time nixed the idea. After all, if God wanted horses to “fly”, He would have given the creature wings. But determined to settle the question, Stanford hired celebrity photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) to prove it.
One of San Francisco’s most celebrated landscape photographers, Muybridge took more than 2,000 photographs with 20x24 inch negatives. His 1867 photographs of Yosemite Valley brought the valley…and himself…almost mythic status.
Accepting Stanford’s challenge in 1877, Muybridge captured Stanford’s horse, Occident, silhouetted against white sheets with all four feet off the ground. He used 12 to 24 cameras and a self-designed shutter that gave an exposure of 2/1,000 of a second. Although these original pictures didn’t survive, Muybridge continued to work with Stanford to develop techniques in the “science of animal motion.”
In 1878, he succeeded in photographing a sequence of frames produced on wet plate with 12 cameras that proved the “flying horse.” The slow wet plate collodion process produced images that were mostly silhouettes, but they showed something never before seen by the human eye.
Scientific American and other prominent publications featured articles on Muybridge’s accomplishment. However, Stanford invited his close friend, horseman and medical physician Dr. J.D.D. Stillman to produce a book analyzing the horse-in-motion. Stillman used Muybridge’s photography without crediting the photographer. Interestingly, when Muybridge sued Stanford and Stillman for copyright infringement, he lost his suit.
Eadweard Muybridge migrated to the University of Pennsylvania after that. His invention of the zoopraxiscope earned him the title of the father of the motion picture. To illustrate his lectures, he developed the scope; its lantern projected images in rapid succession onto a screen. The images came from his photographs, printed on a glass disc. From the rotating disc came the illusion of moving pictures.
Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope display, an important predecessor of the modern cinema, was a sensation at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. His works are still in demand by art students.
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