Today, it takes many kinds of invention to freeze
human motion. 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.
We're so used to seeing
freeze frames. We forget how remarkable it is to
see human bodies, ice skaters and football players,
arrested in mid flight. It is miraculous to slow
living motion 'til the eye can fully delineate its
It all began with horses: 120 years ago, we still
didn't know if all four hooves simultaneously left
the ground in a gallop. The motion was too fast for
our eyes. Not even still photography had answered
that question. Leland Stanford, Governor of
California and horse breeder, had been reading
brilliant work on animal and human motion by a
French physician named Etienne-Jules Marey.
In 1872 he hired an eccentric photographer,
Eadweard James Muybridge, to analyze his horses'
movements. Muybridge was born and died within weeks
of Marey. He had the same initials. Maybe their
lives were destined to interweave. But for now,
Muybridge struggled to photograph horses. In 1874
he found his wife was having an affair, and he
murdered the lover. The jury called it justifiable
homicide, and Muybridge left until the smoke
When he came back in 1876, Stanford suggested he
gallop horses past a row of cameras equipped with
trip wires. When Muybridge did, he got a series of
12 shots in less than half a second. Sure enough,
all four hooves really do leave the ground.
Back in France, Marey was ecstatic when he saw
Muybridge's photos. Muybridge visited Marey in
1881, and Marey said, your horses are wonderful.
Can you do birds as well? Muybridge tried, but he
could not. So Marey went at the problem himself.
The French had an astronomical camera that looked
like a Gatling Gun. A drum exposed 48 plates in 72
seconds. Marey miniaturized it into something like
a Tommy gun, and he sped it up. He was soon
photographing birds in flight and men
Muybridge was too proud to use Marey's system. He
went back to America and improved his
multiple-camera system. Then he focused it on the
human body. He invented a new kind of magic lantern
to project moving images on a screen. He had the
instincts of a Barnum. His lectures became a
sensation. They probably inspired Edison's
kinescope and modern moving pictures.
Sure, the primary inventors were other people --
Stanford, Marey, Edison. But Muybridge was the
catalyst. He published the most exquisite sequences
of ordinary nude human bodies in motion -- doing
ordinary things: rising, sitting, walking,
And it was those exultant photos of plain people,
rendered beautiful in pure naked natural movement,
that evoked the technology of motion pictures. That
celebration of human life was as important as the
act of mechanical invention itself.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds