Quick question: Who invented moving pictures?
Did you say Thomas Edison? Or maybe the Lumiere brothers in France?
I would have.
But then, while on winter vacation, I read “The Inventor and the Tycoon,” a fascinating book by Edward Ball tracing the long path to the development of movies while profiling an unlikely friendship.
The correct answer, many would argue, is Eadward Muybridge, a visionary nature photographer and inventor from England. He had the good fortune to be hired in 1871 to photograph the mansion of Judge Edwin Crocker in Sacramento, Calif.
Crocker’s brother Charles, a dry goods dealer, became one of four principal partners in the Central Pacific Railroad, founded to build the western half of a transcontinental railroad. (The eastern half, of course, was built by Omaha’s own Union Pacific Railroad.) Edwin Crocker became the Central Pacific’s lawyer.
The chairman of the Central Pacific, Leland Stanford, evidently liked the photos of Edwin Crocker’s house. In April 1872 he hired Muybridge to immortalize his own Sacramento mansion, a wedding-cake structure that was the city’s largest home.
Muybridge was an edgy, wild-eyed talker with a long beard and scruffy clothes. Stanford was a placid man of few words who dressed like the titan he was.
But they had a few things in common. Both were in their 40s. Both had arrived in California in the early 1850s. Both liked machinery. Stanford probably was fascinated to learn about the relatively new art of photography and Muybridge’s equipment.
Soon Muybridge was hired to photograph Stanford’s horses. Stanford wanted a photo of his favorite trotter, Occident, taken while the horse was at full speed. Muybridge said photographs of objects in rapid motion weren’t yet possible. Stanford, a man with a great deal of money, said, “I want you to try.”
High-speed wet-plate photography required a lot of light, but freezing motion meant short exposure time, limiting light. Cameras then didn’t have shutters or adjustable F-stops.
But Muybridge was an inventor at heart. He hung sheets behind where the horse would run, to reflect light. He used two lenses, doubling the amount of light on the negative. A shutter made of wooden slats, rubber bands and a spring cut exposure time to a 500th of a second. He got a shadowy image. He worked steadily to improve equipment for shooting and developing.
Soon Occident became a Currier and Ives print, painted in color from a Muybridge photo and sold to thousands.
Stanford’s next challenge was to prove that running horses at times left the ground, all four hooves in the air at the same time as they galloped.
But before he could accomplish that, Muybridge learned his wife had been sleeping with another man, that the boy he thought was their child might not be.
The book goes into great detail about the marriage, the affair and how Muybridge ended it by tracking down the man at a remote Napa Valley cabin and shooting him to death in October 1874.
Leland Stanford’s friend, Wirt Pendegast, was hired to defend Muybridge. In February 1875 a jury acquitted him after Pendegast argued justifiable homicide, defending marital rights. There was no basis in law for such a defense, only in the private sentiments of the 12 men on the jury. Muybridge expressed no remorse.
By summer 1876, when the headlines died down, Stanford hired Muybridge to photograph his new 50-room mansion atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. That same year Stanford bought a farm and named it Palo Alto, the future home of Stanford University and new home of Stanford’s horse farm.
In 1877 the challenge of capturing the full cycle of a horse’s gallop in still photos was back on Stanford’s and Muybridge’s radar. With Stanford’s money, Muybridge set up 12 cameras side by side, then 24, each tripped as the horse ran by, breaking a silk thread stretched across the track.
The resulting images not only caused a sensation in the press, they made Muybridge a household name in 1879. Yes, horses did briefly take flight when they ran.
Muybridge next adapted a slide projector, turning glass slides of photos from the Palo Alto track into the first moving picture by placing them around a revolving plate and blasting light through them onto a large screen.
On Jan. 16, 1880, party guests at the Stanford mansion at California and Powell Streets were mesmerized.
They saw a horse running. They saw the first motion picture, two seconds long.
Muybridge had stopped time, and then put it in motion again.
The friendship with Stanford ended abruptly in 1882 when the rail tycoon took credit for the idea of stop-motion photographs and prevailed in court.
In February 1888 Thomas Edison saw a demonstration of Muybridge’s moving pictures. It was just a matter of time before motion-picture cameras, cellulose and storytelling were added to what Muybridge started.
Strange how few know Muybridge’s name today, and yet how saturated our world is with moving pictures on so many kinds of screens.
But it all began with the inventor and the horse-obsessed tycoon.