Measuring Movement by Movies: a Wager, a Murder & an Invention

Eadweard Muybridge was born in England in 1930. He moved to New York at the age of 20 and later developed an interest in the new technique of photography. He gained a reputation as a photographer with an incrediMuybridge-The_Horse_in_Motionble dedication to his art. He came to the attention of a wealthy former governor of California, Leland Stanford, who was also the owner of race-horses. There had been debate for many years as to whether or not all four hooves left the ground, but in spite of the observations of many racing experts nobody had been able to come up with a definitive answer. The human eye simply could not analyse and break down such complex and rapid movements. Stanford decided that Muybridge would be the perfect man to provide the proof and help him win a $1 million wager with his friends. Muybridge approached the challenge with enthusiasm, showing both a creative genius in coming up with new inventions to capture the images as well as a highly scientific approach to his ‘research’ into equine movement. In 1872 he produced the first conclusive evidence using a single photograph of a horse with all four hooves in the air. With today’s cameras that doesn’t seem too difficult, but consider that Muybridge had at his disposal the sort of plate cameras that normally were only used for the most static of subjects. Faced with the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of inadequate equipment, he invented an ingenious electromagnetic shutter system that would enable him to ‘freeze’ movement to 1/1000sec. Soon he had rigged up a series of 12 of these cameras along a carefully marked track in Palo Alto – resulting in the sort of ‘movie’ you can see below. His methods were more recently employed in putting together the slow ‘bullet-time’ motion sequences of the film ‘Matrix’. In spite of his early success, he wasn’t satisfied with these studies, and continued to perfect his technique between 1978 and 1884. Along the way, he invented the zoopraxiscope which enabled him in 1893 to show his moving pictures to a paying public for the first ever ‘movie theatre’. Sadly, Muybridge didn’t get the credit he deserved: a subsequent book published by a friend of Stanford ‘Horse in Motion’ used uncredited illustrations based on Muybridge’s photographs. His lawsuit was dismissed out of court.

MuybridgeBoys_playing_LeapfrogIn the 1880s the University of Pennsylvania commissioned him to do a series of studies on humans and other animals. Muybridge’s obsessive work left behind an enormous body of work that was truly groundbreaking in the study of human biomechanics. According to Wikipedia, ‘In 1887, the photos were published as a massive portfolio, with 781 plates comprising 20,000 of the photographs, in a groundbreaking collection titled Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Connective Phases of Animal Movements.’ His human models were photographed in front of a measured grid background & in his work he showed a dedication for both scientific accuracy and artistic merit.

There was a darker, more mysterious side to Muybridge that has fascinated historians ever since. He sustained a severe head injury in a stagecoach accident in 1860, and his friends later commented on a change in his character. At this time he returned to England and changed his career from that of a bookseller to that of a professional photographer. In 1872, Muybridge married Flora Shallcross Stone, then aged 21 i.e. half his own age. Two years later he came to believe that his wife’s ‘friend’ Major Harry Larkyns had fathered his son Florado. He traveled to California to track him down and shot him dead at point-blank range. When he was subsequently tried a jury found him not to be suffering from insanity, but instead acquitted him on the grounds of ‘justifiable homicide’. Did his head injury make him mentally unstable? Did it contribute either to his creative genius or to his obsessive-compulsive tendencies? No doubt psychologists will continue to debate the issue.

So what can the rheumatologist learn from such a remarkable man? Apart from the rather obvious observation that our lives are very mundane by comparison, here are a few thoughts…

Muybridge showed how little we know about the science of movement, and on his own he set out to answer a clear question about whether or not all of a horses hooves leave the ground during a trot. He found that indeed they do, but not in the extended position depicted by the artists of the day. Instead, they were off the ground when curled under the horse. To answer this question, Muybridge had to use all of his creative skills and apply a technical and scientific approach to his quest using the latest technology available to decipher what was ‘invisible’ to the naked eye. This was not exactly a pressing scientific question of the day, but this simple quest led to so much more. His work would predate the ‘gait analysis lab’ by over a century.  One suspects that Muybridge would have been in his element in today’s world when there are a plethora of devices to measure movement. One of the criticisms of wearable technology is that nobody has really thought out how best to use the data to answer important questions to better the lives of ordinary people.

So here’s my challenge: If you were able to drum up support for a modern £10 million wager, what question would you ask someone to answer about human movement? 



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