Motion Pictures: The Zoopraxiscope

Eadweard Muybridge Jumping over boy's back (leap-frog). Plate 169 1887

Eadweard Muybridge
Jumping over boy’s back (leap-frog). Plate 169 1887

© Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

During the 1870s Muybridge regularly gave lantern slide lectures, entertaining his audiences with views of California and Central America. After he had successfully photographed Occident and Stanford’s other racehorses, these too became part of his large-scale projections. His talks concentrated on the failings of artists since the Egyptians in their representation of the moving horse. At this stage, the images he displayed were static, but he soon sought ways of animating them. His earliest attempts exploited the optical toy known as a zoetrope, in which strips of his photographs were viewed inside a revolving cylinder. But by autumn 1879, in a stroke of conceptual inventiveness, he had modified his projector so that it operated in conjunction with a shutter and a glass disc, working on the principle of another optical device, the phenakistoscope. As the disc spun round in the opposite direction to the shutter, painted transcriptions of Muybridge’s photographs on its surface were projected quickly one after another, in the process becoming reanimated to create short sequences of movement. Muybridge christened his invention the Zoopraxiscope, meaning ‘animal action viewer’. Though still a long way from modern cinema, this was one of the earliest examples of projected motion pictures.