San Mateo County History

Tales of the San Francisco Peninsula
Theron G. Cady
A series of articles first published in 'Peninsula Life Magazine'
Published by C-T Publishers, San Carlos, California, 1948

Peninsula - Birthplace of the Movies

        Where did the "movies" originate?  If you were to put that question to the millions of people who attend the motion picture theaters throughout America each week you would get a great variety of answers--most of them would be wrong.
        Many "movie-fans" regard Thomas A. Edison as the father of motion pictures but such is not the case.  Although Edison did much toward improving the "movies" he had no actual part in the original experiments.  At the time these experiments were being conducted Edison was busy perfecting his phonograph with the tinfoil cylinder.
        The "movies" actually got their start at a racetrack on the Stanford University campus.  According to the more colorful story "movies" began indirectly over an argument between Senator Leland Stanford and James W. Keene.  Inventive history has Senator Stanford betting his contention that a running horse at one period of its stride had all four feet off the ground, and was in effect, virtually flying.  Actual historical facts and people who knew Senator Stanford intimately discredit this story for two reasons:  Senator Stanford was not a betting man and it was Fred MacCrellish and not James W. Keen, with whom the argument arose in 1872.
        In the popular story, evidently designed more for amusement than historical value, the sum wagered ran all the way from $5,000 to $50,000.  Harry C. Peterson, at one time curator of the Stanford Museum, stated in an article written several years ago that the story of the wager was purely fiction and did not coincide with history.
        The argument, however, seems to be authentic, but George T. Clark, with twenty years' service as a Stanford librarian and the best authority on Senator Stanford, was inclined to doubt Peterson's assertion that it was Frederick MacCrellish with whom Senator Stanford had the argument, since the two were not on the best of terms in 1872 when the first photographic expermients were conducted at Sacramento.
        So with the argument as a backdrop, Senator Stanford contended that a horse had all four feet off the ground during one part of each stride.  MacCrellish, strong in his contention that this was impossible, since the animal would have nothing with which to support itself and would therefore succumb to the law of gravity, we take you to Sacramento where Senator Stanford proved his theory correct.
        Eadweard Muybridge, who had a wide reputation as a phtographer and who was exercising his scientific skills on the coast for the government, was invited by Senator Stanford to take a series of exposures of his trotter Occident, being especially careful to bring out the one feature of the four feet in the air simultaneously.
        In May, 1872, Muybridge made this series of photographs with a single camera, and although the exposures were nothing more than silhouetted snapshots, they proved beyond doubt that Senator Stanford's theory was correct.
        During these experiments with the single camera many exposures were made and discarded before a successful series was produced, and as in most cases of great discoveries, it was these discarded photographs that bridged the gap between slow photogrraphic attempts and the "movies" of the present day.
        Several years after the argument was settled at Sacramento, Senator Stanford, as the story goes, was sitting at his desk at his huge stock farm at Palo Alto idly trying to compose a series of prints running consecutively.  He had the thought that "if a single camera will show one part of a stride, why not use more cameras and thereby increase the number of exposures and obtain the whole stride as exectured by the running horse."
        Muybridge, the photographer, was again summoned and instructed by Senator Stanford to conduct these new experminents at the Palo Alto stock farm.  He was to build his studio, arrange his experimental track and accessories and produce results regardless of expense.
        In 1878 Muybridge went to the Palo Alto stock farm and after carefully inspecting the new location, selected a site for his studio just north of the Lathrop hill and fronting on the racetrack.  The camera house, which was constructed here, was forty feet long with the extreme right end serving as a battery room and the extreme left end as the loading and developing room.  Protruding from the center of the house toward the rear was a drying room about eighteen by twenty feet.
        In this building, which was entirely open in front, Muybridge installed his photographic equipment.  In a long row and fastened rigidly side by side, he placed twenty-four of the best and most expensive cameras.  These were so fixed that the center of one lense was exactly twelve inches from the center of its neighbor.
        Across the trick from the camera house a huge wooden fence was erected.  It was some fifty feet long and fifteen feet high and was to serve as a background for the series of pictures Muybridge intended to take.  This fence which was placed in a position to obtain the best possible light was covered with white muslin and subdivided by heavy black lines into twelve-inch verticle spaces.
        At the bottom of the fence and extending out about eighteen inches was an indicator board twelve inches high.  On this board were lateral lines four inches apart and designed to show just how high the horse raised its foot off the ground as it passed in review before the battery of cameras.
        Directly in front of the camera house and fence a special rubber-covered roadbed was laid on which the horse ran.  Under this rubber cover and at one foot intervals wires were strung crosswise from the fence to the camera house.  At one edge of the special roadbed these wires were so exposed that the wheels of the sulky being used in the experiment would depress them as it passed over.  As each wire was depressed it would release the shutter of the corresponding camera and photograph the moving horse.
        The wires, when used for trotting horses, accomplished satisfactory results but when tried on running horses they were found inadequate.  Fine silk thread was next tried, being stretched from the fence to the camera shutter itself, and was found to perform more smoothly than the wires.  Each thread, spaced one foot apart and breast high to the horse, was stretched at "just the right" tension from the fence to each individual camera shutter.  As the horse came galloping across the special roadbed he broke a thread every foot of the way across.  As he did so he clicked the shutters on the row of cameras photographing himself twenty-four times.
        During the first experiments only a doen cameras were employed but these were soon increased to twenty-four.  Shutters on the first cameras were very troublesome, working unevenly and sometimes not at all.  They often clicked and clattered so loudly that the horse became frightened and bolted the track entirely.  To overcome this difficulty the problem was presented to John D. Isaacs, a young Southern Pacific electrician, to solve.  He was aksed to devise a simple shutter which would work smoothly and with a minimum of noise.  This he did by employing a magnetic release.
        All of two years and some $40,000 were spent in these first experiments.  Animals of all sorts were photographed.  Boxing and wrestling matches, runners, acrobats and professional athletes were put through their paces before the long row of cameras.  Subjects of all kinds, excluding birds because of their variability of flight and limited field of the camera, were pressed into service as Muybridge made one exposure after another.
        As these experiments continued they were carefully recorded and finally the results were published by Senator Stanford in a thick, heavy volume entitled "The Horse in Motion."  Only a limited number of these books ever reached the book markets.  Some were stored in the basement of the Senator's San Francisco home where they were destroyed during the earthquake and subsequent fire of 1906.  Later, however, Muybridge produced several works pertaining to his experiments and the results he had obtained.
        Muybridge and his experiments soon attracted such international artists as Whistler, Detaille, Meissonier and Sir Frederick Leighton who were extremely enthusiastic over his photographic discoveries.  Many notables including Edison, Ruskin, General Grant and others were clamoring for private demonstrations.
        Such widespread interest in his work caused Muybridge to prepare a special series of projection or lantern slides which he arranged upon a large circular wheel.  With a strong light thrown upon the wheel it was possible to project separate life-size or larger pictures upon a screen.  Then by revolving the wheel at a certain speed the projected pictures sprang into motion as they blended one into the other.  This machine, which was easier to operate than to pronounce its name of "Zoopraxicscope" gave motion to pictures much as it is done with our present-day equipment.
        Muybridge, at the request of the French artist, Meissonier, visited Europe where he gave many demonstrations and lectured before nuerous scientific societies.  He also gave a series of lectures at the Chicago Exposition in 1893 where a building, "Zoopraxograhical Hall," was specially erected for his use.
        Inventors of the time, including Edison, became interested in Muybridge's work, but after some study and labor which helped materially to advance the idea they gave it up as unworthy of the time and effort it would require to perfect it.
        Later, several European inventors, using Edison's ideas as a basis, produced several projectors which proved unsatisfactory due to a great deal of flickering and mechanical unreliability.  The English inventor Paul, however, beat the French producer to the public eye by barely three days.
        The first public exhibition of motion pictures in the United States was held at the old Eden Musse in New York, where a French projector was used.  This renewed interest in the "movies" caused Edison to again take up the problem and he soon produced the first practical machine.  From the time of these crude inventions up to the present time it has been merely a case of the survival of the fittest in mechanical production.
        So the "movies" which went through their infancy on the Stanford University campus have grown into an industry valued at millions of dollars.  From the few thousand wet plates used by Muybridge at the Palo Alto stock farm, millions of miles of film are now used yearly to bring entertainment to the American public.  From the few persons engaged in the original experiments thousands are now employed to produce the "movies."  From the original equipment of twenty-four cameras now thousands are daily photographing events of the day.
        Muybridge, through his efforts has brought us the horrors of war and the blessings of peace.  He has brought tears to our eyes and happiness to our hearts.  He has made us laugh and sigh but few, if any, who look and marvel at what passes before their eyes on the silver screen have ever heard the name of Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer, who by his perseverance and persistance made possible the entertainment so universally enjoyed today.

© 1948 Theron G. Cady. All rights reserved.
Posted here with permission of his granddaughter, Andrea Van Norman.
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