Eadweard Muybridge and Baseball-in-Motion

Eadweard Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge

This fine article by Rob Edelman appeared in Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game (2013, Volume 7). I have edited this journal continuously since its debut in the Spring of 2007, except for one issue headed by Peter Morris. Edelman, with his delightful interest in the extensions of baseball into popular culture and media, has been perhaps our most prolific contributor. He is the author of Great Baseball Films and Baseball on the Web. His books also include Meet the Mertzes, a double-biography of I Love Lucy’s Vivian Vance and fabled baseball fan William Frawley, coauthored with Rob’s wife, Audrey Kupferberg. His byline has appeared in Baseball and American Culture: Across the Diamond, Total Baseball, Baseball in the Classroom: Teaching America’s National Pastime, and dozens of other books. He has been a juror at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s annual film festival. He is a lecturer at the University at Albany, where he teaches courses in film history.

ABSTRACTEadweard Muybridge is a pivotal figure in the evolution of moving image technology in that he was the first to employ photography in a comprehensive study of the dynamics of motion. Beginning in 1884 and working at the University of Pennsylvania, Muybridge took thousands of images of humans and animals in motion, with each subject consecutively photographed by 12 cameras. Some were college baseball players; as a result, Muybridge created split-second-long moving images of ballplayers pitching, batting, catching, throwing, and running.

Aficionados of 19th century photography, early motion pictures—and baseball—surely will be captivated by certain still photos and moving images that populate the internet. Google the words “Muybridge” and “baseball,” and you will come up with websites featuring photographic images, dating from the 1880s, that undoubtedly galled those who embraced the era’s Victorian reserve. These images are of young males sans clothing, and who are depicted pitching, batting, catching, throwing, running and picking up a ball, and catching and dropping a ball.

Zoopraxiscope, Animal Locomotion

Zoopraxiscope, Animal Locomotion

The “Muybridge” in question is Eadweard Muybridge, a seminal figure in the history of the moving image in that he was the first to employ photography in a comprehensive study of the dynamics of motion. Simply put, Muybridge made a series of still photographs of his subjects. He then laid them out in chronological order to produce what in essence were moving images, which could be studied to determine the nature of motion. In so doing, Muybridge was creating a kind of motion picture several years before the actual invention of motion picture technology.

Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830 in Kingston upon Thames, England. He came to the United States in the early 1850s, worked in the publishing and book-selling industries, and returned home at decade’s end. While in England, he became intrigued by still photography and soon came back to the United States. He eventually settled in California and, by 1867, he was calling himself “Eadweard Muybridge” and describing himself as an “artist-photographer.” In subsequent years, he took countless landscape photos; one of his most successful projects was a series, titled Scenery of the Yosemite Valley, which was published in 1868.

Edelman_Muybridge_Image #1_a rendering from Descriptive Zoopraxography

Rendering from Descriptive Zoopraxography

A prime assignment for Muybridge came in 1872 when Leland Stanford, the railroad tycoon and former governor of California, hired him to photograph a horse while trotting. It was Stanford’s belief that, when a horse trots, all four of his hooves are off the ground and in the air in certain moments: a hypothesis that only could be conclusively proven by capturing images that otherwise are imperceptible to the naked eye. Stanford had in fact placed a $25,000 bet that this was true, and hired Muybridge to help him win the wager. Muybridge’s initial photographs—the first-ever lateral images of a trotting horse—were inconclusive, but a different set he made soon afterward convinced Stanford that his theory was correct.

By this time, Muybridge no longer was content merely to photograph scenery or other still images. He became fascinated by the possibilities of serial photography, of creating groups of still images which gave the appearance of movement when placed side-by-side or in a circular fashion. With the financial support of Stanford, he began a series of experiments in which he photographed animals in motion. This project was stalled when he was arrested, tried, and acquitted for the 1874 murder of Major Harry Larkyns, who was having an affair with his wife, Flora. However, Muybridge returned to his experimentation in earnest three years later.

His accomplishments at this juncture included the development of a camera shutter that allowed him to photograph each image in a fraction of a second. He also lined up 12 still cameras, each with an electromagnetic shutter, to consecutively photograph trotting horses in sequence—and then repeated the experiment, only this time with twice as many cameras. The resulting images, which illustrated the horses’ movements in exacting detail, were extensively printed in a range of periodicals—and brought Muybridge international acclaim. Furthermore, he concocted what came to be known as the zoopraxiscope: a device that may be the first-ever projector of images in motion. The zoopraxiscope projected onto a lighted screen a succession of still images that were affixed to slides, which then were placed on spinning glass disks. Each image depicted the subject in motion in split-second intervals, resulting in a repetitive moving image.

And then, beginning in 1884 and working at the University of Pennsylvania, Muybridge took between 20,000 and 100,000 photographs—accounts of the exact number differ greatly—of humans and animals in motion. He enhanced his image-making methodology by employing the newly available dry plate (or gelatin) technology, which simplified the photographic process. Representative images from this landmark effort were printed in Animal Locomotion (the complete title is Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements) published in 1887 “under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania.” Each subject was photographed by 12 cameras, and it is noted in the prospectus for Animal Locomotion that “the complete movement” of each was “accomplished in about one and a half seconds.” Additionally, the images “are reproduced from the original negatives by the photo-gelatine [sic] process of printing, without any attempt having been made to improve their pictorial effect, either in outline or detail; or to conceal their imperfections.”

Muybridge, Plate 275

Muybridge, Plate 275, Baseball Batting

Of the 781 images in Animal Locomotion, 16 relate to baseball. Their plate numbers are 273–288. The first is labeled “Base-ball; pitching.” Five are “Base-ball; batting.” One is “Base-ball; batting (low ball).” One is “Base-ball; catching.” Five are “Base-ball; catching and throwing.” One is “Base-ball; throwing.” One is: “Base-ball; running and picking up ball.” The final plate is “Base-ball; error.”

All the models are identified only by three different numbers: 25, 26, and 30. According to the prospectus, the “greater number of [human models] engaged in walking, running, jumping, and other athletic games are students or graduates of The University of Pennsylvania—young men aged from eighteen to twenty-four—each one of whom has a well-earned record in the particular feat selected for illustration.” With this in mind, the most likely “baseball models” are in fact ballplayers. The most noteworthy is Thomas Love Latta (1865–1961), a catcher and captain of the varsity nine. The other two are Robert Edward Glendinning (1867–1936) and Morris Hacker Jr. (1866–1947).

Other sports are featured in the volume, with models rowing, kicking a football, tossing a spear, playing lawn tennis, performing a somersault, and swinging a different kind of bat—this one used to play cricket. Two men box, while two others fence. Other types of physical activities are featured, with models walking, climbing up and down, turning, curtsying, hopping, dancing, sitting, kneeling, or performing such simple tasks as emptying a basin of water, dropping and lifting a handkerchief, getting into and out of a hammock, making a bed, feeding a dog, and washing, wringing, and ironing clothes.

Muybridge, Plate 273, baseball pitching

Muybridge, Plate 273, Baseball Pitching

Physically disabled individuals are photographed. Blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, farmers, miners, and bricklayers are shown plying their trades. A wide range of animals and birds are presented in motion, from baboons and buffalo to dogs and deer to goats and gnus to hawks, vultures, cockatoos, pigeons, eagles, storks. Not surprisingly, a great number of horses—saddled and unsaddled, with and without riders—are represented.

It was noted in an article printed in 1886 in The Pennsylvanian, the university’s student publication, that “all the prominent University athletes, men and women in the various operations of every-day life, and almost every representative animal in the Zoological Garden, have been caught by the camera in every conceivable posture and active motion.” But clearly, the images of athletes were the most appealing. As proof that ballplayers held the same fascination in the 1880s as they do today, the paper added that

… the part most interesting to University men is the delineation of the athletic sports, foot-ball and base-ball, running, jumping, vaulting and wrestling. Nearly every well-known University athlete of the past two or three years has served as a model in the nude, many of them showing magnificent physiques, and exhibiting exquisitely the play of every muscle. The facial expressions in successive intervals of some feat of skill and strength, is a study in itself.

Muybridge, Plate 283, Catching and Throwing Baseball

Muybridge, Plate 283, Catching and Throwing Baseball

Of the images taken of a ballplayer catching and dropping a ball, The Pennsylvanian quoted Muybridge: “See how curiously … and yet how perfectly, this plate illustrates the occurrence of an error in catching.” The publication continued, “True enough. In the successive pictures the ball is muffed, strikes the player’s thigh, runs up under his arm and across his back, while he is looking eagerly on the wrong side for it.”

At the very least, Animal Locomotion served to redefine the movement of living things, not to mention the manner in which this movement was recreated in paintings and sculpture. And then, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, visitors paid an admission fee to view Muybridge’s moving images. He also offered talks on his work and published a monograph, the complete title of which is Descriptive Zoopraxography; or, The Science of Animal Locomotion Made Popular, which was available “as a memento of a series of lectures given by the author under the auspices of the United States Government Bureau of Education at the World’s Columbian Exposition, in Zoopraxographical Hall, 1893.” In its preface, it is noted that the zoopraxiscope “is set in motion, and a reproduction of the original movements of life is distinctly visible to the audience…. By this method of analysis and synthesis the eye is taught how to observe and to distinguish the difference between a true and a false impression of animal movements.” But animals are not the sole living creatures featured in Descriptive Zoopraxography.

The reproduced images are drawings, rather than photographs. One is of a ballplayer swinging a bat. For the sake of propriety, this hitter is clothed. Muybridge eventually returned to England, where he passed away in Kingston upon Thames in 1904—just as the motion picture was beginning to advance beyond its baby steps. Nonetheless, his place in the history of moving image technology is secure. For after all, before such pioneers as Thomas A. Edison, W.K.L. Dickson, and Auguste and Louis Lumière, there is Eadweard Muybridge. Before the earliest baseball films—the 50-foot-long The Ball Game, 1898 (http://goo.gl/OrlJns), for example, or Casey at the Bat, 1899 (http://goo.gl/r9Z2su), which runs the same length—there are Muybridge’s ever-so-brief moving images that are labeled “Base-ball; pitching,” “Base-ball; batting”  (http://goo.gl/xvwAv9), “Base-ball; catching and throwing” (http://goo.gl/AVMGsf), and “Base-ball; error” (http://goo.gl/1wAt49).


The abstract says, “…Muybridge took thousands of images of humans and animals in motion, with each subject simultaneously photographed by 12 cameras.” The photographs were not made simultaneously, but rather consecutively, which is how he was able to portray a sequence of motions.

Stephen Perloff
The Photo Review

You are correct, and I will make that change.

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