Former California Governor Leland Stanford Stanford was an imperious, headstrong captain of industry who had helped build the transcontinental railroad and would later found the university that bears his son’s name. Stanford wanted to settle a $25,000 bet by proving that horses “flew”. Stanford had retired to the life a country horse breeder, and he wanted proof of his claim. So he financed Photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s photo experiments. Muybridge was a flamboyant and successful landscape photographer who’d shot and killed his wife’s lover and was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide.
Muybridge devised more-sensitive emulsions and worked on elaborate shutter devices. He also rigged a trip wire across a racetrack, letting the horse’s chest push against the wire to engage an electric circuit that opened a slat-shaped shutter mechanism to make the exposure. This system produced an “automatic electro-photograph” in 1877. It showed Occident, a Stanford racehorse, seemingly with all four feet off the ground. The press and the public failed to accept this as proof, however, because what they saw was obviously retouched.
Muybridge continued his labors, with the engineering help of Stanford’s Central Pacific Railroad. They installed 12 evenly spaced trip wires on Stanford’s Palo Alto racetrack. When a horse pulled a two-wheeled sulky carriage over the wire, the wheels depressed the wire, pulling a switch that opened an electrical circuit that used an elastic band to open a rapid-fire sliding shutter mechanism in the side of a purpose-built shack. Inside the shack, behind a row of 12 shutters, was a row of 12 cameras. On June 15, 1878, before assembled gentlemen of the press, Stanford’s top trainer drove Stanford’s top trotter across the trip wires at about 40 feet per second, setting off all 12 cameras in rapid succession in less than half a second. About 20 minutes later, Muybridge showed the freshly developed photographic plates. The horse, indeed, lifted all four legs off the ground during its stride. The shots settle an old argument … and start a new medium and industry.