Edweard Muybridge’s grand achievement (1873)

So, now that my book Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics is available for purchase, I’ve been answering questions for editors working on the translated editions that will appear.  These questions led me back to doing a little historical research, and as is always the case I’ve come across fun new things to share!

Today, I thought I would share a nice little bit of history about Edweard Muybridge (1830-1904). Muybridge, as many people know, produced the first high-speed photography of a horse in motion, definitively answering the question of whether a horse’s legs are completely off the ground at any time during a trot or a gallop.  The answer, as his famous 1878 photos shown below illustrate, is “yes.”

But Muybridge’s very first photographs of a horse in motion were taken much earlier, in early 1873. I do not believe they were ever published, but I found the earliest newspaper accounts of his accomplishment, and I thought I would share it here!

To give a little background: Edweard Muybridge, born Edward James Muggeridge in Kingston Upon Thames in England, moved to the United States in the 1850s and ended up in a successful career as a bookseller. However, an 1860 trip to St. Louis ended in disaster when the stagecoach he was riding in crashed, leaving Muggeridge with severe head injuries. He went to recuperate back in England, and when he returned to the West Coast of the United States, he embarked upon a new career as a photographer, now with the name “Muybridge.”

Muybridge in 1899, via Wikipedia.

Muybridge’s specialty was landscape photography, and he become well-renowned for his daring photographic views of the Yosemite Valley. It seems that his creativity caught the attention of industrialist Leland Stanford, who had at that time recently taken up horse-racing. At that time, racers were hotly debating the aforementioned question of whether a horse ever has all its hooves off the ground at the same time while in a trot, and Stanford hired Muybridge in 1872 to attempt to photograph the horse in motion.

The choice of photographer turned out to be a good one because, by early 1873, Stanford and Muybridge were ready to announce to the world the success of the endeavor.

The following passage comes from the April 10, 1873 edition of the Daily Evening Herald of Stockton, California, which is the earliest report I was able to find. This is probably not the original, but is reprinted from another local California newspaper.  I have added paragraph breaks to make the text a bit more readable, and have fixed typos in the original.


Governor Stanford wanted to have a representation of his favorite trotter, “Occident,” in motion; but was at a loss to know how to accomplish it. Mr. Muybridge, a San Francisco photographer, was sent for and commissioned to execute the task, though the artist said he believed it impossible; still he would make the effort.

All the sheets in the neighborhood of the stable were procured to make a white ground to reflect the object, and “Occident” was after a while trained to go over the white cloth without flinching; then came the question how could an impression be transfixed of a body moving at the rate of thirty-eight feet to the second.

The first experiment of opening and closing the camera on the first day left no result: The second day, with increased velocity in opening and closing, a shadow was caught. On the third day, Mr. Muybridge, having studied the matter thoroughly, contrived to have two boards slip past each other by touching a spring, and in so doing to leave an eighth of an inch opening for the five-hundredth part of a second, as the horse passed and by an arrangement of double lenses, crossed, secured a negative that shows “Occident” in full motion —  a perfect likeness of the celebrated horse. The space of time was so small that the spokes of the wheels of the sulky were caught as if they were not in motion.

This is considered a great triumph as a curiosity in photography — a horse’s picture taken while going thirty-eight feet in a second!

I love digging up old articles like this to see how history was reported as it happened!

Curiously, though this photograph certainly answered the question about the hooves of a horse at a trot, this is not mentioned at all in the article. Apparently this revelation was overwhelmed by the technological achievement? It is also worth noting the mention of the “spokes of the wheels”: trotting horse races were harness races, with the horse pulling a wheeled cart, as pictured below.

The standardbred horse Dan Patch in harness, circa 1900, via Wikipedia.

Six years would pass before actual photographs of a horse in motion entered into print and the public’s consciousness, and before that happened, Muybridge would be involved in murder and scandal. But that is a story for another time… or you can read it in my book!

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1 Response to Edweard Muybridge’s grand achievement (1873)

  1. Very interesting! I had no idea they could accomplish that feat so early.

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