The gait debate

To win a bet, Eadweard Muybridge pioneered motion pictures.

Written by      

At a gallop, do all four of a horse’s hooves leave the ground at once? Of course they do. What about at the trot? We’ve seen enough photo finishes to know the answer without thinking. But in a time before 2000th/sec, these were phenomena yet unseen—conundrums that fuelled a raging debate.

In 1872, it was mostly for painters to interpret motion, and their convention depicted horses at the trot with one foot grounded: at the gallop, with all four airborne. Leland Stanford decided to settle it once and for all. The Californian railroad tycoon hired Eadweard Muybridge (a.k.a Edward Muggeridge, a.k.a Eduardo Muybridge), an English-born photographer, to capture the conclusive evidence mid-stride.

It was a good choice: Muybridge, originally a bookseller, was captivated by the new alchemy of photography. In the late 1860s, he mastered the wet-plate collodion process, and patented a high-speed electronic shutter and an electro-timer of his own design. With these inventions, he could control and synchronise arrays of up to two dozen cameras. Each camera captured a consecutive moment, which Muybridge could later assemble as lantern-slide silhouettes on a disc. When he spun and projected the disc in another of his inventions, a ‘zoopraxiscope’, the still images leapt to life, making Muybridge one of the pioneers of animation and cinematography.

Stanford figured this technology would finally reveal what the human eye could not discern, and put Muybridge to work. In 1872, the photographer began a series of experiments with a 12-camera array. As a horse passed, it twanged light threads that triggered the shutters. It was haphazard, but Muybridge was able to settle at least one argument: a single negative caught Stanford’s trotter Occident airborne at the trot.

Frustratingly, Muybridge was unable to prove conclusively that horses left the ground at a gallop. He went back to the workshop, developing faster shutters and film emulsions. By 1878, he was confident he had the gear for the job. On June 15, he set up a line of 12 glass-plate cameras beside the track at Stanford’s Palo Alto Stock Farm (now, incidentally, the campus of Stanford University). To either side, he draped huge white sheets to direct light onto his subject. No more thread-pull triggers: his electro-shutters would now fire the cameras, four each second. Muybridge left nothing to chance. He’d earned the condemnation of the press in 1874, when he avoided a murder conviction after shooting his wife’s lover (the jury acquitted him on the grounds of justifiable homicide), and now they lined the track with their pencils set to pan.

A jockey leapt aboard Stanford’s champion mare, Sallie Gardner, and on Muybridge’s signal, whipped her down the track “like a whirlwind”. The cameras clacked, and Muybridge took the plates into a trackside shed while the reporters waited.

Twenty minutes later, he emerged with the proof: there was Sallie Gardner, her legs gathered beneath her, all four feet aloft in the “unsupported transit” between the thrust of her back legs and the pull of her front.

The reporters declared the revelation a “brilliant success”, and the images were duly published in Scientific American.

Stanford had his answer. Muybridge finally had the admiration of the media, but for him, the Palo Alto experiments were merely part of a greater scientific quest. Over the summer of 1879, all manner of creatures were urged down Stanford’s track: deer, cows, pigs, dogs, goats, spurred before the cameras as Muybridge granted the human eye a fascinating new experience—a glimpse into the realm of frozen moments.