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Essay/History of Technology
Animal locomotion: racehorse ‘Annie G’ galloping by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Getting things moving

The most important moments in invention are sometimes the imaginative leaps – even when they turn out to be dead-ends

Brian Clegg

Animal locomotion: racehorse ‘Annie G’ galloping by Eadweard Muybridge, 1887. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

Brian Clegg

is a science writer whose work has appeared in Nature, Playboy, BBC History, and The Wall Street Journal, among others. His most recent book is Ten Billion Tomorrows (2015). He lives in Wiltshire.

2,300 words

Edited by Sally Davies

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Behind the drawn curtains of his home in Palo Alto, California, the railroad magnate Leland Stanford waited for his horse to be brought to life. A white sheet hung against one wall, and in the gloaming the only light came from a wood-and-brass construction at the back of the room. Suddenly, with a mechanical clatter and the hiss of an oxyacetylene lamp, a moving image appeared on the screen. It was little more than a silhouette, but Stanford and his astonished guests could clearly see Hawthorn, Stanford’s stallion, walking along as if it were right there in the room among them. 

Eadweard Muybridge, proud and nervous, stood next to his device. The British photographer had a reputation in California thanks to his superb technical eye and his majestic Yosemite waterscapes, as well as the sensational murder of his wife’s lover five years before. But he had escaped conviction, and resumed work on a commission from Stanford to capture the motion and beauty of his benefactor’s beloved race horses.

As the applause from the audience died away, Stanford addressed the photographer. ‘I think you must be mistaken in the name of the animal,’ he said. ‘That is certainly not the gait of Hawthorn but of Anderson.’ It turned out that the stable staff at Stanford’s ranch had switched the horses. But so crisp was the outline, and so defined its movements, that Stanford could tell the difference.

This private demonstration for Stanford took place in the autumn of 1879, shortly after he bought the estate that would go on to become Stanford University. A hundred years later, Stanford and its surrounds would become renowned as the crucible of the ‘Silicon Valley’ computing boom, building on the ‘analytical engine’ first envisaged by another British inventor, the mathematician and polymath Charles Babbage.

Babbage and Muybridge were separated by class, generation and temperament. But for both creators, the path from conception to application for their technologies evolved in ways that they couldn’t have anticipated. Putting their lives side by side contains valuable insights about the contingency of history, and what it takes to be remembered as the ‘father’ or ‘mother’ of invention. 

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Muybridge was born in 1830 as Edward Muggeridge, into a merchant family that traded in corn and coal in Kingston upon Thames in England. The place inspired the first of Muybridge’s many name changes when, at 20, he appropriated the ‘Eadweard’ spelling of the Anglo-Saxon kings that had been carved upon an ancient coronation stone near his home. He set off to New York as a young man, in 1850, before crossing the country to the frontier town of San Francisco. Over time, for reasons he never explained, his surname evolved to Muygridge and then Muybridge.

Muybridge set up as a professional photographer and, in 1872, he married Flora Shallcross Stone, a young divorcee half his age. He also found himself drawn into Stanford’s circle, after the millionaire asked Muybridge to take photographs of his galloping racehorses to determine whether they had all four hooves off the ground at any point in their stride.

With Muybridge away from home much of the time, Flora fell pregnant to a rambunctious drama critic called Harry Larkyns. Seven months after the baby was born, Muybridge discovered he was not the father. Incensed, he tracked down Larkyns at a ranch in the Napa Valley. Muybridge called out from his hiding place in the dark. As his wife’s lover peered into the gloom, Muybridge said: ‘My name is Muybridge and I have a message from my wife,’ shooting Larkyns point-blank through the heart. Within hours, Muybridge had been arrested.

Charles Babbage led a much more refined life than the knockabout Muybridge. Born in London in 1791, son of a goldsmith and banker, Babbage inherited a fortune from his father and could have spent his life as a dilettante. He thrived in London’s high society, and much of his work seems to have been undertaken in an attempt to impress the rich and famous at his popular soirées. But Babbage was also intelligent and well-educated, holding down the post as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge for 11 years from the age of 37.

Early on in his tenure, inspired by the industrial revolution, he began toying with the idea of a mechanical calculator that would use gears to overcome the labour of working out mathematical equations by hand. In the summer of 1821, Babbage was helping his astronomer friend John Herschel check a series of astronomical tables. Going cross-eyed with the effort of working the array of figures, Babbage is said to have cried out: ‘My God, Herschel! How I wish these calculations could be executed by steam!’

Of itself, the idea of a mechanical calculator was not new. Such devices go back at least as far as the Antikythera mechanism, recovered from a Greek shipwreck dating to the first or second century BC, which used a complex mechanism of gears to predict the motion of heavenly bodies and other natural phenomena. And there is a more direct antecedent of Babbage’s work in the calculating machine devised by the French mathematician Blaise Pascal in the 1640s, a number of which were constructed.

Babbage’s first concept was called a ‘Difference Engine’. Like Pascal’s machines, it involved a series of gears, but was more sophisticated in the range and scale of its calculations. He convinced the British government to invest £17,000 in his project – around £1.2 million in today’s money – but he completed only a fraction of the total machine. Despite the government’s objections, he dropped the Difference Engine for a far grander idea – what he called his ‘Analytical Engine’.

Muybridge’s breakthrough came with the zoopraxiscope, the world’s first movie projector

Muybridge’s murder trial in 1875 drew a huge crowd. His defence team attempted to show that he was deranged, arguing that a wagon crash in 1860 had damaged his judgment and self-control. But the prosecution tore his insanity plea apart. In a final, impassioned speech, Muybridge’s defence lawyer told the jury that Muybridge’s actions were justified, citing the Bible to argue that killing his wife’s adulterous lover was the right thing to do. After a night’s deliberation, the jury found Muybridge not guilty.

Some time after, Muybridge reconnected with Stanford. This time, he set up a bank of 12 top-quality stereoscopic cameras with high-speed shutters, and took a rapid series of photographs of Stanford’s horse in motion. The breakthrough came with the invention of the zoopraxiscope, the device that had enabled Stanford to recognise his horse. Images were arrayed around the outside of a disc, which rotated rapidly in one direction, while a counter-rotating disc with slots acted as a gate to control which image was projected onto a screen, creating the illusion of movement. It was the world’s first movie projector.

After a sell-out European tour and a legal battle with Stanford, who claimed the images as his own, Muybridge found another opportunity to raise his profile. He met William Pepper, the provost of the University of Pennsylvania, who enabled Muybridge to produce thousands of motion studies. Between 1884 and 1887, using far better photographic materials, Muybridge shot hundreds of sequences of men and women, often naked, performing all sorts of tasks and movements. (It was often very difficult to persuade bricklayers to do their job with no clothes on, Muybridge commented ruefully.) The apex of his contribution to moving pictures came at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, a huge fair in Chicago to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in the New World. Here, Muybridge built the Zoopraxographical Hall – the first purpose-built cinema, a 50-foot-high extravaganza in mock stone.

In contrast to Muybridge’s raw and dusty work on Stanford’s property, Babbage was inspired by the sophistication of silk weaving. Making complex patterns with fine silk thread was painfully slow when done by hand – so much so that two loom operators might produce only an inch of material a day. In the 1740s, a French factory inspector devised a loom that used a mechanism such as a musical box to speed up the process. Just as the pins on the rotating cylinder of a musical box triggered notes on metal prongs, the device used pins to control different-coloured threads. However, each cylinder was expensive to produce, and the design was limited by the size of the cylinder – one turn, and the pattern began to repeat.

A new loom created by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, the son of a master weaver, swapped the cylinder for a series of holes punched on cards. Each hole indicated whether or not a particular colour should be used at that point, and because the train of punched cards could be as long as the pattern required, almost any piece of weaving could be automated this way. Before long, Jacquard looms were turning out two feet of silk a day – a remarkable transformation of productivity.

The versatility of Jaquard’s system appealed to Babbage. A treasure he often exhibited to visitors was a portrait of Jacquard that appeared to be an etching – but on close examination it was woven from silk, with a remarkable 24,000 rows of thread making up the image. Such a product would have been impossible without Jacquard’s technology, and Babbage realised that a similar approach could be used in a truly revolutionary computing device, his Analytical Engine.

Dismissing the fixed gears of his earlier design, Babbage wanted the Analytical Engine to have the same flexibility as the Jacquard loom. For the Difference Engine, the data to be worked on was to be entered manually on dials, with the calculation performed according to the configuration of gears. In the Analytical Engine, both data and calculation would be described by a series of Jacquard-style punched cards, which allowed for far more flexibility of computation.

The Difference Engine was an incomplete mechanical calculator, while the Analytical Engine never got off the drawing board

There was just one problem. Although Babbage designed the Analytical Engine in concept, he never managed to construct even a part of it. Indeed, it’s unlikely that his design could ever have been successfully built. His plans fired the enthusiasm of Ada Lovelace, the mathematician and daughter of the poet Lord Byron. She was eager to work with Babbage on his Analytical Engine, and described several potential programs for his hypothetical machine. But Babbage showed little interest in Lovelace’s contributions. His grand vision proved impossible to make a reality.

The technologies envisaged by both Babbage and Muybridge bear little connection to their modern equivalents. Their devices were evolutionary dead ends. Muybridge’s banks of cameras were clumsy and impractical; his movies were limited to a couple of seconds in duration. And Babbage’s computers were even worse. The Difference Engine was an incomplete mechanical calculator, while the Analytical Engine never got off the drawing board.

For both computers and moving pictures, the real, usable technology would require a totally different approach. But how the legacies of each of these inventors has been preserved varied greatly according to the vagaries of chance, politics and ambition.

The conceptual originators of the modern computer were the British mathematicians Alan Turing, who devised the fundamental model, and John von Neumann, who turned Turing’s highly stylised theory into a practical architecture. These pioneers had an academic background, and their consideration was not glory, but solving an intellectual challenge to help the military effort during the Second World War. As prime minister, Winston Churchill was determined to keep the power of the computing equipment at Britain’s disposal a secret, and the work was accordingly downplayed. As a result, Babbage was never totally eclipsed by his successors.

But neither academic restraint nor political interference got in the way of Muybridge’s rivals. Inventors such as the Lumières, two French brothers who developed a self-contained camera and movie projector, had everything to gain financially from being recognised as firsts. They picked up on the invention of the roll-film for still cameras to create moving pictures that were much easier to make, and lasted much longer. These entrepreneurs had no need for a conceptual ancestor – Muybridge was not a muse, but potential competition.

Muybridge’s reputation also suffered after the publication of A Million and One Nights (1926), a book about the early years of moving pictures by Terry Ramsaye, the editor of an American cinema trade magazine. Ramsaye cast Muybridge as a self-serving fraud who passed off other people’s inventions as his own. He was supported by the evidence of John D Isaacs, an electrical engineer who helped to build the shutter-release mechanism used in Muybridge’s action photography, and claimed to be the genius behind all Muybridge’s work. Muybridge, who had died more than 20 years earlier, couldn’t speak for himself. Ramsaye’s account was later discredited, but it was enough to wipe Muybridge off the map for many years.

Science and technology are rarely about lone genius. Neither Muybridge nor Babbage developed workable inventions that functioned at scale, and it ultimately took new creators, with fresh approaches, to bring their ideas to life. But that initial spark matters – and, as their lives remind us, being an inventor is as much about imagination as it is about creation.

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Ideas can change the world

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview.

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Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking.

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