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The $25,000 Bet Behind the Invention of Movies

Updated: Feb 6

Author: Todd Billings

These days, it’s easy to take the wonder of moving images for granted when all you have to do to make a movie is push the record button on your phone. But it took a lot of ingenuity and experimentation to invent the technology that got us here.

Today we’re going to revisit one of the legends of early movie-making history by hopping into the Way Back Machine and heading for the late 19th century. “Movies” (short for moving pictures) didn’t exist then, but still photography had been around for several decades. At that time, a few inspired photographers noticed that displaying photos in quick succession -- think of those fun photographic flip books -- created the illusion of movement.

The most famous of the early movement photo series came from Eadweard Muybridge, a Scottish photographer and cartographer working in America. The story goes that in 1872, Muybridge was hired by Leland Stanford, the former governor of California (who also happened to be a racehorse owner), to settle a wager about whether all four of a horse’s hooves are ever off the ground at the same time when it runs. Using multiple still cameras with trip wires triggered by running horses to capture successive images of their gaits, Muybridge demonstrated that horses are in fact momentarily airborne when galloping, winning the bet for Stanford.

A few years later, Muybridge projected his serial images through a device he invented called the zoopraxiscope, which projected sequential images from around the edge of a glass disc, producing the illusion of motion. His work is credited with inspiring Thomas Edison to create the first motion picture camera before the century’s end, proving you never know where a friendly bet will lead!

Great story, right? But as is often the case in history, it turns out that this is the legend, and not exactly what happened. This telling of the story makes it appear as if this was a whimsical gentlemen’s bet that was settled over the course of a couple of weekends, but in fact, it took years of experimentation and technology design to figure out. And although Muybridge gets all the credit, it turns out he did little to make it happen.

Here’s the real, messier story:

The 1872 bet that started the whole process was far from small or gentlemanly; it was for $25,000, or about $525,000 in today’s money. Stanford did hire Muybridge to take photos of his horses to prove his pro feet-off-the-ground side of the argument, but the glass plate negatives of the time simply weren’t fast enough at 1/12th of a second to capture a clear photo of the horse’s gait. In fact, Muybridge’s camera often missed everything but the tail or the nose of a horse as it ran by. And though tripwires were indeed used, as the legend purports, they succeeded only in spooking some of the horses and pulling the cameras out of position. The result? Insufficient data.

Attempts at further photographic data collection came to a dramatic delay In 1874, when Muybridge killed a man who was suspected of fathering a child with Muybridge’s young wife. The photographer was arrested and acquitted of the charges after a famous defense lawyer was hired by Stanford and others. After the verdict, Muybridge lived on Stanford’s ranch and laid low while working on his photos.

In 1877, Stanford turned to the engineers of the railroads to help prove his argument. A young man by the name of John D. Isaacs was tasked with coming up with a mechanism to fire a row of cameras in quick succession. After some experimentation, Isaacs accomplished this and returned to his work on the railway. Muybridge then used Isaacs’ device to successfully take photographs of horses and a wide array of other animals in motion, winning the bet for Stanford -- who published a book of the argument-winning photos -- and making a career of presenting “his” work to academics and photography enthusiasts.

And as for the inspiration of putting these photographs together to create the illusion of movement, the credit for that goes to Jean Louis Meissonier, a french painter and artist who saw Muybridge’s photos and invited him to Europe to share his work. It was Meissonier who had the idea to transfer images from Muybridge’s photos to glass plates to be used on a Zoetrope. Muybridge understood the importance of this step and incorporated his version of the zoetrope, the zooipraxiscope, into his show as well, again taking the credit. In fact, Muybridge went so far as to sue Stanford for sole credit for the work of the famous photographs, but when John D. Isaacs was called to testify, Muybridge dropped the suit.

And as for the bet that started it all? Though Stanford won the $25,000, it’s estimated that he spent a grand total of around $40,000 to get the proof he needed. An expensive win for Stanford, but a giant step for filmkind.

There you have it, a bit of cinema history in all its messy glory. Hope you enjoyed this post!