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Eadweard MuybridgeEadweard Muybridge

[mI' brij] inventor of a motion-picture projector

Edward James Muggeridge was born at Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey, England, on April 9, 1830. He emigrated to the United States in 1852, and it was then that he changed his name to Eadweard Muybridge, because it sounded more Anglo-Saxon.

Muybridge initially worked in the publishing and book-binding businesses, but his interests soon turned to the relatively new field of photography. Working under the name of "Helios," he built a reputation as a talented photographer. In 1860 he was hired by the federal government to photograph the unmapped territories in Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming. Muybridge view of the Yosemite ValleyHe first earned fame for a series of photographs and stereoscopic slides of the Yosemite Valley, published in 1867. In 1870 he was hired by Bradley and Rulofson of San Francisco, where he gained national notoriety for his stereographic views of the gold fields.

Muybridge's skills as a photographer came to the attention of Leland Stanford, a railroad baron and former Governor of California. Stanford hired Muybridge to help him settle a bet -- that when a horse gallops all four of its feet leave the ground at least once. In early 1872, Muybridge arranged a series of cameras along a path, with each camera shutter attached to a trip wire laid across the path; as the horse galloped down the path it broke each trip wire in turn, thus producing a series of still pictures. By May of 1872 Muybridge had succeeded in creating a reasonably good silhouette that indeed showed all four of the horse's feet off the ground at one time, but the photograph's quality was mediocre at best. Stanford wanted a photograph that would settle the bet once and for all, so he agreed to provide the funds necessary for Muybridge to improve his methods.

Muybridge's work was briefly interrupted, however, when he was arrested and tried for the murder of his wife's lover. After a fairly contentious trial in which Muybridge's lawyer tried to have him declared insane, Muybridge was finally acquitted on grounds of self-defense.

patent model of Muybridge's synchronization deviceResuming his work for Stanford in 1877, Muybridge first developed an improved mechanical device to trip shutter strings stretched across the track, which the horse broke in succession as it galloped down the track. Each string was attached to one camera shutter, which in turn was closed by the action of a rubber band. He soon replaced the shutters with electrically controlled ones, with the circuits being closed either by the string method or by the tires of the sulky running over bare wires laid on the ground. By 1878 he was able to produce much clearer still photographs, in which it could be clearly seen that all four of a horse's legs do indeed leave the ground when drawn together under the body. He received two patents for his synchronization devices in 1879.

The Horse in Motion, as photographed by Muybridge

Stanford was so impressed with Muybridge's work that he formally published The Horse in Motion (1882), with drawings after Muybridge's photographs and text by J.D.B. Stillman. He neglected, however, to give Muybridge credit for the photographs; in fact, Muybridge's name never even appeared in the book.

Having successfully helped Stanford win his bet, Muybridge next turned his cameras on birds in flight, humans walking and performing various other activities, zoo animals, and more. He then invented the zoopraxiscope, a device in which 24 of his rapid-sequential photographs could be mounted on a wheel that was then spun to give the viewer the illusion of motion. He first demonstrated the device for Stanford in 1879, and to the Royal Institution in London in 1882. He also demonstrated the device to Thomas Edison and William K.L. Dickson, who would later use the basic concept to invent the motion picture projector.

electro-expositor, front and rear viewsIn 1883, Muybridge was invited to continue his work at the University of Pennsylvania. To improve the quality of his finished photographs, he began using dry plates (instead of wet plates) that were specially sensitized for his purpose. To improve his technique, he employed three batteries of 12 cameras, each equipped with custom-made lenses. The camera shutters were operated by an even better synchronizer, called the electro-expositor, which he patented in 1883. In this device the shutters consisted of two sliding members, with each member having a hole the exact same size as the lens. One shutter member was pulled up by a spring, the other pulled down. In the course of motion the two holes aligned just long enough to make one exposure. The cameras could be arranged in such a way as to take up to 24 successive exposures, and by 1885 he was making up to 36 images at one time.

Muybridge also designed a portable camera that was fitted with 13 matched lenses, one of which served as a finder. Used along with the electro-expositor, Muybridge could now take his "motion pictures" without the use of trip lines.

To make better quality finished photographs, Muybridge developed a technique of turning his negatives into positive prints on glass. These positives were in turn trimmed and assembled in various combinations, and then a master negative would be produced, from which photogravure plates would be made. These plates could then be used to mass produce photographic prints for sale. A total of 781 plates -- showing both animals and people in various forms of motion -- were made. The prints were published by the University of Pennsylvania in 1887 and sold by subscription as Animal Locomotion. A complete set consisted of 11 huge folio volumes and sold for $500. Only 27 complete sets were ever sold, and the printer eventually went bankrupt, but many lots of smaller 100-print sets were bought by art collectors, scientists, and various institutions.

Animal Locomotion was subsequently followed by three more collections of "motion photography": Descriptive Zoopraxography: The Science of Animal Locomotion Made Popular (1883); Animals in Motion (1899); and The Human Figure in Motion (1901).

Eadweard Muybridge returned to his birthplace in 1900, and died there on May 8, 1904.

Freeze Frame: Eadweard Muybridge's Photography of Motion National Museum of American History

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This page was last updated on 02/09/2015.

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