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Edweard Muybridge

The true father of cinema

Created date

April 6th, 2016
A Phenakistoscope disk called "A Couple Waltzing."

A Phenakistoscope disk called "A Couple Waltzing."

Eadweard Muybridge didn’t exaggerate when he signed his photographs Helios. Like his pseudonym’s namesake—a Greek god who brought light to the world by pulling the sun with his chariot—Muybridge used his brilliant gift for invention to illuminate and advance the art of photography, and most importantly, motion pictures.

Born in 1830 in Surrey, England, Edward James Muggeridge, as he was christened, was a restless boy, eager for adventure. Early on, he knew that a life spent in Surrey selling coal and grain like his father wasn’t for him. 

At age 20, he’d had enough. Changing his surname to Muggridge, he sailed for the United States.

He ultimately made his way to San Francisco, where he again changed his name (this time to Muygridge) and went into business as a publishing agent and bookseller.

Still riding its reputation as the “capital of the Gold Rush,” 1850s San Francisco was as cosmopolitan as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Muygridge thrived here.

By 1860, he was a prosperous broker dealing internationally in high-end antiquarian books. Always in search of new merchandise, he traveled frequently, leaving his brother to manage the store.

One of these excursions would profoundly alter the course of his life.

Life-altering incident

In July 1860, Muygridge left San Francisco for a buying trip to England. His plan was to take a stagecoach to St. Louis, continue by train to New York, and then sail to Britain.

But he didn’t make it. While passing through Texas, Muygridge sustained a serious head injury in a runaway stagecoach accident. 

His recuperation was arduous and never complete. He suffered from double vision, loss of taste and smell, and impaired judgment and thinking.

He eventually sailed to England for treatment by Queen Victoria’s Physician in Ordinary Sir William Withey Gull. Renowned for his research on neurological disorders, Gull spent five years treating Muygridge and, at some point, suggested that his patient take up photography as a form of therapy.

Still-life mastery

That’s just what he did. Muygridge quickly mastered the wet-plate collodion process, which, as the name suggests, used a photosensitive solution to produce a negative on a glass plate. 

He remained in England experimenting with photographic equipment and shooting scenic portraits, until returning to the United States in 1867, this time under his third and final surname—Muybridge.

By now, the former bookseller had achieved a fair amount of acclaim for his photography, especially his portraits of the Vernal Falls at Yosemite and the massive Sequoia trees of California’s Mariposa Grove.

He had also garnered attention for his patents and experiments related to moving pictures. Indeed, this would be his true legacy.

In 1872, former California Governor Leland Stanford, a wealthy businessman and horse owner, contacted Muybridge with a job offer. He’d heard about the photographer’s experiments with electric shutters and multi-camera systems that could record a subject’s movement.

Stanford wanted to settle a long-debated question: When a horse runs, does it ever have all four feet off the ground? He hired Muybridge to answer it.

Six years later, the photographer was ready to find out. On June 15, 1878, Muybridge photographed Stanford’s horse at a Palo Alto race track.

Using a proprietary high-speed emulsion and a rig of 12 electrically shuttered cameras attached to trip wires, Muybridge made a sequence of perfectly timed exposures. In one of them, all four of the horse’s feet were off the ground (

Early movies

For Stanford, the experiment ended the debate. For Muybridge, it was the start of something new—the potential to animate still images.

Imitating a popular children’s toy called a zoetrope, which simulated movement by spinning a series of images inside a viewer, Muybridge designed a glass disk imprinted with a photographic sequence. Next, he mounted it inside an illuminated zoetrope.

When rotated, the device projected a moving image onto a screen. The world had its first movie.

Through the 1890s, Muybridge continued to make moving pictures using stop photography. He toured the country, lecturing on his extensive study of human and animal locomotion and his techniques for capturing them. 

Overshadowed by Edison

Soon, however, Thomas Edison’s movie camera forced the self-proclaimed Helios into the shadows of history.

He spent his retirement in England, where he died in 1904. In an ironic twist, the name he so often changed in life is misspelled on his gravestone—Maybridge instead of Muybridge.

But his name aside, Muybridge’s contribution to the art of still and motion picture photography is beyond dispute.