IT WAS THE FIRST TIME anyone ever famously, and elegantly, shot a racehorse.
And with a home-page worthy of the home-stretch, Google today saddles up one of its most winning animated Doodles in months. Monday’s animation celebrates the 182nd anniversary of the birth of Eadweard J. Muybridge, the innovative British photographer who created film-strip pictures of a galloping mare to literally see whether all four hooves are ever simultaneously aloft and off the ground.
The creative result is a winner by the length of Google’s imagination (complete with tinted frames to suggest the color scheme of the company’s logo).
The animation depicts Muybridge’s “Sallie Gardner at a Gallop” (aka “The Horse in Motion”), the film strips shot in the 1870s — using a series of interval-spaced cameras and former California governor Leland Stanford’s stable — in order to determine the animal’s true, then-mysterious movement. Muybridge’s pioneering photography and viewing machine helped lay the technological tracks for motion pictures.
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THROUGH THE SIMPLEST LENS, the “Sallie Gardner” footage can be viewed as merely the result of the era’s hotly debated Galloping Question: Is a running horse ever completely airborne, especially with fore and back legs outstretched in opposite directions, as popularly depicted then in paintings? Muybridge was tasked with providing an answer to the hard-charging questioners who, according to lore, had money riding on the outcome.
Through another aperture, though, this was the colorful collision of an acquitted killer, a railroad “robber baron” and a chestnut daughter of Tennessee.
Both men were aiming to make their names and fortunes in the rough-and-tumble California of 1855: Muybridge migrated from his Kingston-on-Thames birthplace and arrived in San Francisco trying to gain a toehold into publishing. That same year, Stanford was moving to Sacramento to strike the mother lode as a big-time merchant after running a general store that catered to Gold Rush-era miners.
By the time Stanford sought out Muybridge in 1872 to settle the Galloping Question, both transplants had succeeded in the fertile West: The New York-born Stanford had been California governor a decade earlier and helped build the Central Pacific Railroad (he would found Stanford University two years later). Muybridge headed back to England after a stagecoach accident and, during his recuperation, became fascinated with wet-collodion photography; he then returned to San Francisco in the ‘60s and made a name for himself (though that name was sometimes simply “Helios”) as a landscape and portrait photographer with a fondness for panoramic Yosemite.
Neither man could know it then, but in that very same year, out in Tennessee, a chestnut daughter of Vandal was foaled. Her name: Sallie Gardner.
Although the horse-breeding Stanford hired the photographer in 1872, it would be five years before Muybridge was able to provide a photo negative that conclusively showed all four hooves simultaneously off-the-ground — proving “unsupported transit,” as Stanford called it.
(Muybridge’s experiments were partly derailed by his own murder defense: He shot and killed his wife’s alleged lover [a San Francisco drama critic] in 1874, plead insanity and was acquitted instead on the grounds of justifiable homicide. His criminal defense, it’s worth noting, was partly paid for by the wealthy Stanford himself.)
In 1877, with Muybridge’s negative in hand (and the photographer back from two years in Central America, far from the scene of the crime), Stanford encouraged his hire to expand on his experiments.
The following June of 1878, Muybridge set up a series of cameras and glass plates along the racetrack at Stanford’s Palo Alto Stock Farm. Having been brought west and now part of the Stanford stable, Sallie Gardner — who had a mixed racing history by this point — galloped the course, her chest hitting each silken wire that triggered each camera shutter. The resulting images were converted to silhouettes that, on disc, could be viewed through Muybridge’s self-invented Zoopraxiscope machine — a forerunner to the motion-picture projector.
The film strip of “moving pictures” showed clearly what the naked eye (especially those of erring painters) could not detect: The anatomical “push” and “pull” of the horse's elegant stride.
[BEHIND THE SCENES: How a Google team artist creates a compelling Doodle]
THE EXPERIMENTS BROUGHT Muybridge fame — even if Stanford was reluctant to acknowledge the “non-scientist” photographer in print. Stanford, the future U.S. senator, published ”The Horse in Motion” but did not credit Muybridge for his work and visuals. (The photographer sued but was less fortunate in court this time around, losing to Stanford.) That spurred a falling-out between the political horseowner and the horse-shooting zoopraxographer.
Muybridge, however, continued his work on animal locomotion, creating footage of various moving zoo animals — from birds to bison — while working with the University of Pennsylvania. He also shot thousands of motion-study images of humans (often wearing nothing, if not next to it) in athletic movement. And sporting his flowing and snowy, Walt Whitman-esque beard, Muybridge lectured at London’s Royal Institution, where his audience included future King Edward VII.
Eadweard J. Muybridge died in 1904 back in Kingston-upon-Thames, already acknowledged for his work thanks partly to his popular books. From page to stage to screen, he has influenced and inspired countless artists and inventors (everyone from the kinescoping Edison to the kinetic U2 of “Zooropa”).
Sen. Leland Stanford died in 1893, while still in office. He is interred in a mausoleum on the campus of Stanford University — where Google, to bring this full circle by a few furlongs, was first birthed a century later by students turned founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
And Sallie Gardner died in 1888. The photogenic forerunner with racing in her veins produced generations of winning racehorses.
Happy 182nd, Eadweard Muybridge. Today, through the lens of history, you still resonate as a pioneering pace-setter.
Comic Riffs’ TOP TEN ‘GOOGLE DOODLE’ ANIMATIONS EVER (*before today):
1. PAC-MAN: VIDEO-GAME GOOGLE
2. GOOGLE BALLS: THE MYSTERY DOODLE
3. JOHN LENNON: IMAGINE THIS DOODLE
4. MARTHA GRAHAM: THE DANCING DOODLE
5. FREDDIE MERCURY: THE MUSIC VIDEO
6. JIM HENSON: THE CLICKABLE MUPPETS
7. ART CLOKEY: THE “GUMBY DOODLE”
8. JULES VERNE: THE DEEP-SEA DOODLE
9. STANISLAW LEM: THE ANIMATED SCI-FI GAME
10. VALENTINE’S DAY: