Working in Palo Alto, California, Muybridge’s most celebrated experiment took place near the beginning of his career, when he was hired by Leland Stanford, then governor of California, to settle a bet as to whether or not a horse had all four legs in the air during a race or relied upon one leg on the ground at all times to keep balanced. In 1878, Muybridge used his trip-wire technique to produce a series of images of a galloping horse at a Palo Alto racetrack, decisively demonstrating that a horse did indeed have all four legs off the ground when running at a fast clip. By 1879, Muybridge was using his Zoöpraxiscope to project these brief segments of motion onto a screen for audiences; the average clip ran only a few seconds.
This is the beginning of projected motion pictures, arising from a series of stills taken by a number of different cameras, run together rapidly to create the illusion of motion. Another cinematic pioneer, Étienne-Jules Marey, invented what might be considered the first truly portable moving picture camera in 1882, a “machine-gun”-styled affair that photographed twelve switched to Eastman paper film instead of glass plates and was able to record forty images in one burst, using only one camera.
Perhaps the most mysterious figure of the era is Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, whose experiments in cinematography were revolutionary and remain controversial to this day. In Paris in 1887, Le Prince built a sixteen-lens camera, capable of photographing sixteen images in rapid succession of a single scene. By March or April of 1888, working in Leeds, England, Le Prince successfully created a single-lens camera that used a series of photographic plates to record motion, later replacing the plates with perforated paper film from the George Eastman company, as Marey had, for greater ease of projection.
In October 1888, Le Prince photographed his brother Adolphe playing the “melodeon” (a primitive accordion) in the garden behind his laboratory.
In the same month, he photographed members of his family in the same garden at Oakwood Grange, strolling through the grass. In the summer of 1889 (although some historians say 1888), Le Prince photographed what would become his most famous sequence: a shot of pedestrians and traffic crossing Leeds Bridge. Twenty frames of this historic film survive today.
Le Prince was also working on a projection device for his images, and by the winter of 1889 he had perfected a projection device using the “Maltese cross movement,” a gear that pulled down the perforated film images one at a time for successive projection to create the smooth illusion of movement. In the first months of 1890, Le Prince photographed short films in Paris and screened them for the governing body of the Paris Opera. With his single-lens camera, his projection device, the use of the Maltese cross movement (still used in most film projectors and cameras to this day), and his groundbreaking public projection of his work, Le Prince seemed poised on the brink of success.
But then the inexplicable happened. After visiting his brother in Dijon in September 1890, Le Prince boarded a train bound for Paris intent on presenting his invention to the world. He never arrived at his destination. In one of cinema’s great mysteries, Le Prince seemingly vanished from the train before it arrived in Paris, along with his invention. Although a full-scale investigation was launched into Le Prince’s disappearance, no trace of the inventor or his devices was ever found.
To this day, the riddle of what happened to Le Prince’s camera and projector remains a tantalizing enigma, and one can only speculate as to what history might have recorded of his accomplishments had he not disappeared without a trace.
Other inventors, certainly, were working along similar lines. William Friese-Greene, an Englishman, was also involved in creating an early version of the motion picture camera and projector, and is claimed by the British as the inventor of motion pictures. In that same country, Birt Acres produced and screened his films on a device he dubbed the Kineopticon, which was patented in May 1895 and publicly demonstrated in early 1896.
Robert W. Paul was another early British film pioneer. In Germany, Max and Emil Skladanowsky invented their own cinema camera and projection system, the Bioscope, and in France, Henri Joly created the competing Photozoötrope. In America, Woodville Latham and his sons, Gray and Otway, created the Panoptikon, yet another projection device, and introduced the “Latham Loop,” a device that allowed the film running through a projector a brief respite before being pulled down for projection, thus preventing the film from being ripped by the “pull-down” motion of the Maltese cross device.
Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins created the Phantoscope, which was then bought up by the inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Alva Edison, who renamed it the Vitascope, and later, with refinements, the Kinetoscope.
Thus, working at roughly the same time, William Friese-Greene, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, Gray and Otway Latham, Max and Emil Skladanowsky, and many other film pioneers all made significant contributions to the emerging medium. But despite all their work, two individuals, through a combination of skill and luck, stand out as the “inventors” of the cinema, although they were really just the most aggressive commercial popularizers of the new medium.