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When Eadward Muybridge Came to Penn

Deep within the annals of Penn Medicine’s two-and-a-half centuries is a fun little story that ties together horse racing, an eccentric man with a Rip Van Winkle beard, The Matrix, and the University of Pennsylvania. More importantly, it serves as an early example (just one of many over the years) of innovations in both art and science happening hand-in-hand right here at Penn Medicine. It starts, as many good stories do, with a (possibly apocryphal) bet.

Leland Stanford — a man for whom the word “tycoon” was practically invented — was, among other things, an industrialist, the founder of Stanford University, and an owner and breeder of horses. That last interest is Germaine, as it was Stanford’s interest in the mechanical composition of a horse’s gait that led him to, as legend has it, make a friendly wager about whether all four of a horse’s legs left the ground at the same time during a full gallop.

While the story of the bet may or may not be true, what’s known for certain is that in the mid-1870s, Stanford called upon the services of renowned English photographer Eadward Muybridge to settle the matter.

Muybridge had established himself as one of the foremost authorities and pioneers in the young art of photography by the late 1860s. His work documenting landscapes in the American West made him enormously popular — and helped bring him to the attention of Stanford.

In July of 1877, Muybridge was able to grab a shot of one of Stanford’s galloping horses with all four of its feet off the ground, but questions arose about the photo’s authenticity. Muybridge and Stanford, undaunted, decided to up the ante: One year later, with members of the press in attendance, Muybridge put together a line of 24 tripwire-activated cameras and had the horse run in front of them — creating Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, a photographic series you’ve almost certainly seen before:

A behind-the-scenes shot from the filming of the "bullet dodge" scene from The Matrix. The row of cameras surrounding Keanu Reeves is more advanced in many ways than what Muybridge had to work with, but the general concept is precisely the same as what he used to capture the horse's gallop in motion. 

(Techniques similar to the one Muybridge pioneered in 1878 are still in use today: A row of cameras sequentially taking still images helped create the classic ‘bullet dodge’ scene from 1999’s The Matrix, as well as countless similar shots in movies and television shows since).

Though it was out west that Muybridge made a name for himself and created Sallie Gardner at a Gallop, it was in Philadelphia that he found the unique combination of scientific investment, technological advancement, and funding that would allow him to pursue his new fascination: animal locomotion. In the mid-1880s, through a series of delivered lectures and the connections that resulted, Muybridge found himself meeting with William Pepper, MD — graduate of the University of Pennsylvania medical school, leader in medical education, and Provost of the University of Pennsylvania — as well as a bunch of the wealthiest and most powerful folks Philadelphia had to offer.

With cash from Philadelphia’s elites and the backing of the University of Pennsylvania’s trustees, Muybridge’s work found a home on the grounds of the university’s new veterinary school. Among those in the commission appointed to keep an eye on Muybridge’s experiments was its secretary, Harrison Allen, a University of Pennsylvania school of medicine graduate and emeritus professor of physiology. Other members of the university’s medical school would go on to serve in the commission or work with Muybridge directly — like Edward Reichert, also a professor of Physiology.

Were you to be out walking around the intersection of 36th and Pine Streets in 1884, you’d spot a long, black, three-sided shed lined with a grid of white strings. This was Muybridge’s outdoor laboratory. Batches of cameras placed along its length were designed to be tripped by electromagnets, allowing them to go off sequentially and produce the sort of image series that would allow Muybridge to isolate the mechanics of movement from a multitude of angles. While he’d make various improvements to the system over its lifespan, ultimately the principle remained the same.

Eadward Muybridge. Note that I was not kidding about that beard.

Credit: Biography

Of course, what good is a camera if you don’t have a subject? Yet again, Muybridge drew upon local resources: the Philadelphia Zoo was happy to share its animals, and — to aid the sort of research into human physiology that drew Allen and Reichert to the project — men from the University of Pennsylvania community were brought in front of the cameras to perform a wide variety of actions while in the nude (or very close to it).

Within a few years, Muybridge produced images numbering in the hundreds of thousands. There were galloping animals, of course. There were also men playing baseball, doing farm work, performing military maneuvers, working construction, throwing a discus, boxing, and dancing. Muybridge himself even got in on the act, posing nude for a series of photos wherein he swung a miner’s pick.

A little weird? Yes. Innovative? Also yes. In science and medicine, those two things like to go hand-in-hand.

The photos, published in 1887, became a collection titled Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Connective Phases of Animal Movements. His published work — much of which is still available for purchase to this day (Amazon’s got you covered) — was instrumental in furthering our understanding of human physiology and biomechanics on a medical and artistic level in the late 1800s, and most of it was produced right in our own backyard: 36th and Pine doesn’t exist today, of course, but if you want to stand where Muybridge’s models once stood, you can do so over on Hamilton Walk, right near the John Morgan Building.

An endlessly complex and unpredictable fellow, Muybridge probably warrants a few posts of his own — but those are tales for another blog to tell. Still, any comprehensive look at his life has to include those years wherein he and the University of Pennsylvania teamed up to revolutionize the way we look at bodies in motion.

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