Heron flying, chronophotograph, Étienne-Jules Marey, <i>Le movement</i>, 1894 (Linda Hall Library)

Heron flying, chronophotograph, Étienne-Jules Marey, Le movement, 1894 (Linda Hall Library)

Etienne-Jules Marey

MARCH 5, 2020

Scientist of the Day - Etienne-Jules Marey

Étienne-Jules Marey, a French student of human and animal physiology and locomotion, was born Mar. 5, 1830. If you were asked, in a trivia contest, what 19th-century scientist first attempted to unravel the mysteries of animal movement using novel photographic techniques, and who (hint) had the initials EJM, you might well answer: Eadweard James Muybridge, who famously took photos of galloping horses to demonstrate that, when in full flight, horses did indeed at times have all four legs off the ground. Well, you wouldn't be entirely wrong with that answer, but a much better reply would be Étienne-Jules Marey, for he was a scientist who knew a lot about physiology, instrumentation, and graphic display, whereas Muybridge knew no science at all, and although Muybridge was the first to photograph horses galloping (in 1872), Marey was first in every other category one can think of, including the study of human movement.

Initially, Marey used mechanical and electrical instruments to try to measure pulse and respiration and sense limb movement (third image), but as soon as Muybridge showed what the camera could do, Marey embraced photography as a means to shedding light on the mysteries of locomotion.

In 1882, Marey invented a sequence camera that he called a chronophotographic gun, because it looked like a fat rifle (fourth image).  It could take a sequence of rapid-fire images on a single piece of film (Muybridge had photographed his running horses with a bank of cameras, each one taking a single photo as the horse ran by). With his gun, Marey captured all manner of animal movements, from herons flying (first image) to skates swimming (fifth image) to humans pole-vaulting (sixth image).

Marey captured a stick figure of a human running by dressing a man in black and painting thin white stripes down his arms and legs (seventh image), and then filming the man in motion with chronophotography, in a sense pioneering the modern cinematic technique of motion capture that was used for such films as The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2013) (eighth image).

Marey wrote a book called La machine animale in 1873, which used pre-photographic techniques to study animal motion, and then another called Le mouvement (1894), where most of the images were produced by chronophotography. We have a 1st edition of the latter book in the History of Science Collection, which we have used as a source for our images today, and English translations of both books (1874 and 1895), but we do not have a 1st French edition of La machine animale, nor do we have an 1885 book on physiology by Marey that has an important supplement on graphic techniques that Edward Tufte praised highly in his wonderful book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983).

As an epilogue, we ask another trivia question: who was born in 1830, died in 1904, and used photographic techniques to study animal locomotion? Amazingly, both Muybridge and Marey again fit the bill. The two men were just destined to be confused with one another.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.