Today, we try to build machines that work like
animals.. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
French physiologist Etienne
Jules Marey was born in 1830, and he trained in
medicine and physiology. For the first ten years of
his career, Marey focused on instrumentation. He
measured the circulation and hydraulics of blood
and breath, the elasticity, strength, and tone of
muscle, the behavior of the heart. To do all this,
he built a stunning variety of mechanical
At first it was pretty much measurement for
measurement's sake. Then Marey began focusing on
one particular question: How do animals move and
birds fly? In 1873 he published the first of his
many books: Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on
Terrestrial and aerial Locomotion. His opening
sentence is loaded. He writes:
Living beings have frequently been ... compared
to machines, but it is only in the present day that
the ... justice of this comparison [is] fully
Marey's hope has taken a beating since then. As
we've tried to improve machines by copying animals,
we've seldom succeeded. The design of animals is
just too incredibly sophisticated. Still, Marey
began a process that goes on today. Bit by bit,
living creatures do reveal their secrets.
But Marey was looking in from the outside. He
measured movements of limbs in humans and animals.
His countless graphs showed the response to
electrical shock, motion of feet and hooves, cyclic
action of wings. He built a large rotating arm on
which he mounted a live, instrumented bird that he
could observe in flight.
My 1897 and 1911 Encyclopedia Britannicas
(just before and after, the Wright Brothers) both
have long articles on flight. Each quotes Marey's
work. That's because, even after we began to fly,
we still clung to the hope that birds would show us
the best way to do it. Alas, they haven't yet. The
means used by birds remain too subtle to copy.
Marey says, again and
again, that it's just a matter of measurement.
Measure the movements of birds accurately enough,
and we should be able to replicate those motions.
Then we'll fly. Yet, when he's done, we look at his
glorious accretion of data and we still wonder just
how we go about getting ourselves into the air.
Still, Marey made huge strides in the improvement
of medical measurement. He died the year after the
Wright Brothers flew, and he left us with a rich
legacy of knowledge that we didn't have before.
But the Wright Brothers did not measure birds. They
used a wind tunnel to measure the effectiveness of
their own airfoils. In the end, what they showed us
was a component of willfulness. Marey
said, "I'll study the birds and copy them." The
Wrights said, "Forget birds. We don't have millions
of years. We must make our own beginning if we want
Invention is hubris. It is willfulness.
The inventor knows that nature must only be obeyed,
not copied. And it is a very rash thing to say,
"Now I'll leave nature, and do something wholly
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
E. J. Marey, Animal Mechanism: A Treatise on
Terrestrial and Aerial Locomotion. London: Henry
S. King & Co., 1874. (Original French
In America we often hear of Marey on in connection
with the photographer of animal and human motion,
Eadweard James Muybridge. For more on that
connection, see Episode
Photo of birds in motion by John Lienhard. Other
images from Marey.