On this day 127 years ago, the 15th July 1878, an English researcher called Eadweard Muybridge answered an apparently simple question with some very big implications for the future. The question was this: What happens to a horse’s feet when it gallops? Do they all leave the ground at any point?
The unaided human eye can’t tell us, because the feet move too fast. To solve the problem Muybridge created an ingenious experiment using the new invention of photography. He set up a line of cameras attached to tightened strings. When a horse galloped through the strings and broke them, the cameras were triggered and took a series of photographs showing the position of the horse’s feet at different moments in time.
When he examined the photos, Muybridge discovered that, yes, the feet of a galloping horse do all sometimes leave the ground at once. It might seem a simple question, but the study of human and animal movement would one day become very important in medicine and technology. By understanding how humans move, we can help amputees and other injured people recover the ability to walk. By understanding how animals move, we can learn to build robots that imitate them. Imagine the advantages of a spider-like robot that can climb walls or run easily over rough ground.
But Muybridge’s experiment was important in another way. In effect, he had invented the moving picture – the movie. He used many cameras, not one, but in time the technology would catch up with his idea and true movies would be born. Their effects on history and culture are impossible to calculate. They’ve both revealed the world and distorted it. Movies have educated and entertained many millions of people over the decades.
But they’ve also manipulated millions of people. Dictators like Hitler and Stalin used movies as propaganda, glorifying their political systems and stirring up hatred against their enemies. When the Second World War began, Britain used movies as a way to strengthen the resolve of its people and to encourage America to enter the war too. You can’t understand the history of the last hundred years without looking at the role movies have played for good and bad.
One important debate is still going strong: how much do movies reflect the world and how much do they shape it? The Mafia existed long before the Godfather movies were released, but Mafia members used the movies as a model for their own behaviour. After all, the movies were stylish, glamorous and exciting. Sometimes make-believe on a screen seems richer, fuller and more satisfying than real life. Things happen more quickly and we the audience can watch a story from beginning to end in two hours or less.
This is why, despite competition from television and computer games, movies remain such an important part of entertainment. There’s still nothing to match the experience of seeing a movie on a big screen at the cinema. All human life is there – and so is all human death. Adventure and romance movies have always been important genres, but so have war and horror movies. Human beings are the only species on earth who truly understand that our lives will end. We both fear death and are fascinated by it. That fear and fascination draw us to stories about death.
Once we listened to those stories or read them in books. Now we watch them on the big screen too. A question about galloping horses led to an invention that captured not just the beauty and pleasures of the world, but its ugliness and horror too. Eadweard Muybridge couldn’t have guessed what he was starting all those years ago.