Eadweard Muybridge: moving picture-maker and murderer – or not…..

LET US START with the ‘moving picture-maker’. Supposedly motion pictures began in 1890 with the introduction of the first motion-picture camera. In fact, Eadweard Muybridge was there first in 1878. He was born Edward James Muggeridge in England in 1830 but that spelling (his name not the country) was too boring for him so he changed it (several times, in fact).


 Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) – ‘Edweard the beard’!

Anyway, he was very interested in photography and there was this chap, an America (ex-governor of California in fact) named Leland Stanford who owned race horses. Now, one of the great questions of the day was whether all four of a horse’s feet ever left the ground all at once (no, I don’t know why it was such a great question either – bored curiosity I expect). In 1872 Stanford commissioned Muybridge to resolve the question through photography – and this he did: the answer proved to be yes, at one point a horse is airborne with no feet on the ground when at the trot and gallop. Muybridge did this by setting numerous large glass-plate cameras in a line along the edge of the track and the shutter of each was triggered by a thread as the horse passed.


Muybridge’s photos showing the horse in motion – top sequence, pics 2 & 3, show the horse airborne

He then copied the images in the form of silhouettes onto a disc to be viewed in a machine invented by him which he called a zoopraxiscope (see below). This was later regarded as an early movie projector – motion pictures were not far away!

Muybridge’s horse on the move as viewed through the zooprxiscope – this is was produced in 2006 using Muybridge’s photos

So what about getting away with murder? Well, let’s first go back to 1860. Muybridge was travelling in a stage coach in Texas when it crashed and he suffered head injuries and, in particular, to the orbitofrontal cortex  (front of the brain, okay) which was the likely cause of his later eccentricity and strange behaviour. One such ‘strange behaviour’ was to shoot dead his wife’s alleged lover, Major Harry Larkyns (well, perhaps it wasn’t so strange – depends on one’s point of view I suppose). Apparently, having previously ‘given her child’, Larkyns had written to Muybridge’s wife, Flora. Muybridge had obviously seen the letter and visited Larkyns in Calistoga in California and said to him, “Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here’s the answer to the letter you sent my wife,” and shot him.


Flora Muybridge (1872)

Muybridge was put on trial and pleaded not guilty due to insanity caused by his above mentioned head injury. Four colleagues gave evidence to say that his personality had indeed changed from genial to erratic since the accident. Muybridge’s own behaviour in court whilst giving evidence was both contrary and explosive. The jury rejected insanity but found him not guilty on the grounds of ‘justifiable homicide’. So he got away with it, jammy … fellow (don’t try this at home as ‘crimes of passion’ are not deemed justifiable as a defence to murder in the UK – unreasonable, I know).

Muybridge went on to make many more motion studies being sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to England in 1894 and died in Kingston-upon-Thames in 1904.


Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope



                  Muggeridge’s dancing phenakistoscope disc (1893)


Next week:  Richard Pococke – 18th century antiquarian traveller

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

I was digging in the Negev Desert in Israel and came upon a casket containing a mummy. After examining it, I called the curator of the local museum.

“I’ve just discovered a 3,000 year old mummy of a man who died of heart failure,” I told him.

To which the curator replied, “That’s a very quick assumption regarding date and cause of death. Bring him in and we’ll check it out.”

A week later, the amazed curator called me. “You were right about the mummy’s age and cause of death. How in the world did you know?”

“Easy,” I replied, and showed him a piece of papyrus that I had found in the mummy’s hand. It read, ‘10,000 Shekels on Goliath’.


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