by Kristin Berkery

In the late 1800s, a hot question was debated by many: Does a horse lift all four hooves off the ground during a gallop? Motion pictures didn’t exist at the time so there was no easy way to know the answer.

Currier & Ives

A Currier & Ives image illustrating how the gallop was perceived before film.

California Governor Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University, argued that horses take all four feet off the ground during a gallop with the front and back legs extended at the same time, as depicted in Currier & Ives lithographs. Stanford, a wealthy man, hired English photographer Eadweard Muybridge to settle the argument.

In spring 1872, Muybridge went to Union Park Race Course in Sacramento, California, to photograph a Thoroughbred racehorse named Occident owned by Stanford. The photographer was able to record only faint images on wet plates, but it was enough to settle the purported $25,000 bet in Stanford’s favor. (Stanford was only partially right — all four hooves are off the ground under the horse, not outstretched.)

Muybridge set out to invent a system that would use 12 cameras (later using 24 cameras) spaced 27 inches apart and trip lines to capture motion on film. As a horse ran across the area to be photographed, it tripped the lines and triggered the camera shutters to open and close. In 1878, he finally succeeded in capturing a horse named Sallie Gardner running at speed on Stanford’s personal racetrack in Palo Alto, California. The press was invited to witness the event so there would be no doubt in people’s minds that the pictures were authentic.

Sallie Gardner

Sallie Gardner in motion. These were the pictures that showed the world that all four of a horse's hooves are off the ground during a gallop.

Titled The Horse In Motion, the pictures made it easy to see for the first time what a horse really looks like when it’s running. Even so, there were still people who didn’t believe their eyes and argued that horses could never move that way.

A pioneer in the invention of motion pictures, Muybridge also had a troubled life. Stanford published a book called The Horse In Motion featuring Muybridge’s work, but didn’t give the photographer credit. Muybridge sued Stanford over the matter and lost.

In 1874, while he was working on his motion picture system, Muybridge learned that his wife was having an affair. Irate, Muybridge shot his wife’s lover to death. He was tried and acquitted for murder. Stanford paid for Muybridge’s legal defense and Muybridge’s wife divorced him.

Muybridge’s invention also lead to the photofinish after the photographer wrote a letter to the British scientific publication Nature suggesting that his device could take a picture the moment horses ran across the finish line, determining the winner. There were some challenges implementing his idea, but the first photofinish camera was installed at a racetrack in 1888.

A cat filmed by Muybridge

A cat captured on film by Muybridge

After his success photographing horses, Muybridge captured a wide variety of animals in motion, including bison, cats, ostriches, and humans in various gaits. Muybridge’s photos of locomotion are still studied today.

Muybridge gave a presentation in 1880 at the California School of Fine Arts that included an invention he called the “zoographiscope,” which projected his photos in sequence onto a screen to show motion. This is believed to be the first motion picture presentation in history.

To learn more about Eadweard Muybridge, visit The Compleat Eadweard Muybridge.