The Quest for the Levitating Horse

Muybridge's The Horse in Motion (1878) | PC: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Muybridge's The Horse in Motion (1878) | PC: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Memento Artem

A jockey-ridden horse gallops down a San Francisco Bay area racetrack. Speeding down the track, the horse steps on a sequence of trip wires. Then, one after the other, sound camera shutters fire off. It was then, in that moment, few probably knew that history was made. 

It was a question posed by Leland Stanford, former California Governor and founder of Stanford University. Does a galloping horse ever have all four of its hooves off the ground? The photographer Eadweard Muybridge dared to tackle this quandary in an ingenious and creative way.

Muybridge set up a row of a twenty-four cameras that were triggered by trip wires along the track. The horse, named Sallie Gardner, galloped down the racetrack and trigger the trip wires that caused the shutters to capture the movements of the horse. Muybridge processed the film and there it was. There it was, all four of the horse’s hooves floating midair. 

He not only caught the discovery of the horse hovering, but also a perfect sequence of the horse’s movement in a gallop. It was revolutionary. Things the human eye for centuries couldn’t capture and process where all perfectly laid out into a perfect and understandable progression of time. Muybridge knew this was his moment in history and that should be shared with the rest of the world. 

Muybridge would spend time lecturing on and publishing his discoveries and how they were revolutionary for how humankind could interpret and discover movement in a new way. He would present these images using his invention––the zoopraxiscope. “The zoopraxiscope was the tool Muybridge used to display these motion studies to the public”, says Union College Assistant Professor of Art and Graphic Design Alan Orrison. “Multiple images (at first, simple hand-drawn silhouettes) were placed around a glass disk. This cylinder was spun so that the images were projected in rapid succession, thereby giving the impression of movement.” This was a revolutionary way of presenting images that instilled wonder in all who saw it. However, these public displays caught the attention of biologists and anatomists which recognized the importance of Muybridge’s discover and its application for science. 

The University of Philadelphia sponsored Muybridge to perform motion studies of humans and animal. The human models would often be nude and performing some actions like playing cricket, basketball, sitting or jumping. For the animals, he would work with the Philadelphia Zoo to capture their movements. These studies were later published and would be major contributors to the development of biomechanics as a scientific field. However, they’re still  regarded as major works of art. 
Muybridge dedicated a majority of his artistic career to these studies of motion. He knew that he had something unique and revolutionary to bring to the table. One can imagine him watching an audience at one of his lectures, faces lit by the light of the zoopraxiscope, staring in utter awe of what they were looking at. He might’ve thought, “This is something so special that the world will never be the same again.”

Cameron Cizek is a junior studying computing.