Washington State Magazine

Summer 2015


Summer 2015

Ask Dr. Universe

Why did people invent movies?

© Washington State University

Ask Dr. Universe

Why did people invent movies?

–Danielle, Latrobe, Tasmania

Movies not only took the ideas and inventions of people, but also the work of a horse. Her name was Sallie Gardner and the debate of her day was whether or not horses ever had all four hooves off the ground during a gallop.

The human eye moved too slowly to see what was going on with horses’ hooves, so in 1872, the governor of California hired photographer Eadweard Muybridge to find out.

Muybridge set up big cameras around a track to capture Sallie Gardner in motion. He discovered in one of the photos that, for a moment, she was in mid-air.

Now, Muybridge not only had the answer, but also a whole series of Sallie Gardner photos to work with in his studies. He placed her photos around the edge of a glass plate that was divided up into sections like a pizza, a different picture on each slice.

Then, Muybridge used what he knew about theories from Greek mathematicians and physicists to build a new movie machine called a zoopraxiscope. With a crank and a light source, he could spin the disc and project a moving picture onto the wall.

Illustration of Muybridge experiment

My friend Jon Hegglund is an English professor at Washington State University who studies movies and how people tell stories.

He said kids in the Victorian era even played with zoetropes, toys that looked like a hollow drum with several vertical slits around the outside. When the drum spun quickly, the viewer could see pictures drawn on the inside start to move.

“Partly, people invented movies because they could join the technology of photography with an interest in seeing pictures move,” says Hegglund. The history of movies has a lot of inventions that end in “trope” (to turn) and “scope” (to see).

Michael P. Allen researched films at Washington State University. He told me it took both inventors and dreamers to create the movies we have today, but Thomas Edison engineered the pieces that brought it all together.

“Edison’s first films were very short clips of boxing matches, dancing, and acrobats that could be viewed by a person looking into a viewing machine called the kinetoscope,” Allen says.

He explained how the world began to change dramatically when the two Lumière brothers made the first motion picture people could watch on the big screen. They rented a room in a Paris café basement and people could watch a 15-minute movie for just a few cents.

“In any case, the answer to the question is money,” Allen says. “Films may be art, but they take money to make and they are made to make money.”

This summer, you can create a movie or flipbook and let me know if there are other reasons why you invented it. If cats like me could time travel, maybe we could get answers from the inventors themselves. Until then, I’ll leave the history of movies to the experts and ideas of time traveling to the moviemakers.

Sincerely, Dr. Universe

Illustration of Muybridge experiment of horse movie

Illustrations David Huyck

Visit AskDrUniverse.wsu.edu to view some of WSU's 125 years of history captured on film.

Categories: Visual arts | Tags: Inventions, Movies

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