Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 826:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 826.

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 subtle complexities.

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 cleared.

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 pole-vaulting.

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, sweeping.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Braun, M., Picturing Time: the Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Muybridge, E., The Human Figure in Motion. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1955.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Librarian, for suggesting the topic and locating the source material. The Braun book on Marey, begins with the most wonderful quotation from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?

For details of one of his studies of the human body in motion, see, http://www.museum.cornell.edu/HFJ/permcoll/pdp/muymotion.html

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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