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Feature - Moment of Discovery - Brian Clegg

In May 1882, Eadweard Muybridge was taking London by storm. He had already presented his photograph sequences dissecting motion - and with dramatic results had projected the sequences at high speed, showing the first moving pictures on the big screen - at both the Royal Institution and the Royal Academy to huge acclaim. Now he had been invited to present a paper to the Royal Society.

About three days before his monograph was due to be presented, Muybridge was summoned to appear before the Council of the Society. Because of the publication of a book with Muybridge's images in that did not mention Muybridge on the title page, he was considered not to be the originator of the work - in essence, he was accused of plagiarism.

Muybridge would recover from this sleight, but it set him back for many years. When researching my book on Muybridge, I asked the Royal Society if they had ever officially retracted their rejection (as they later were to welcome Muybridge with as much acclaim as the other institutions). It seems they didn't. But it was with a tingle of excitement that I received an e-mail saying that in a sort out of old records they had just discovered something remarkable. The original review of Muybridge's monograph, which was written by the now-controversial scientist, Sir Francis Galton.

It was Galton who came up with the term (and concept) eugenics, which would later be widely misused, along with a wide range of other achievements, though not related to Muybridge's work. Galton's review can now be seen for the first time in over 100 years.

Report on Mr Muybridge's paper on the Attitudes of Animals in Motion - by F. Galton

Mr Muybridge's memoir is founded on a numerous series of 'instantaneous' photographs made by him in California at the cost of ?? at the station of a wealthy cattle breeder, Mr Leland Stanford.

There is a dispute as to the scientific proprietorship of these photographs. Mr Stanford considers Mr Muybridge as being in his employment, Mr Muybridge claiming a separate right to his own work. However that may be, Mr Stanford has already published the photographs in an elaborate volume, together with a description of the conclusions to be drawn from them, which latter was written by another employee of his, Dr Stillman. I do not find that the conclusions drawn by Mr Muybridge in his memoir differ in any notable manner from those of Dr Stillman; they are certainly much less perspicacious and well expressed, and they are scarcely if at all intelligible without reference to the photographs.

If, then, Mr Muybridge's paper were published, it would have to be illustrated by reproductions of the photography to which he has no sure legal claim, and after this was done the result would be a memoir much inferior in importance to an already published book, without perpetrating any novel feature of its own that I can see, to recommend it.

Under these circumstances, I am unable to advise the council of the Royal Society to order Mr Muybridge's paper to be presented either in their Transactions or in their Proceedings.

Francis Galton May 19 / 82

Finding Galton's wording was a great help in understanding just what was going on back in 1882. But was he right? Arguably not. Firstly some of the facts were simply incorrect. Stanford was not a cattle breeder and Muybridge did not take photographs at his "station". The book in question was arguably illegally produced (Muybridge was not credited with taking the photographs) and made it seem as if Stanford, who had funded the experiments but had nothing to do with their execution, had been the experimenter himself. And Galton had know information that suggested Muybridge had "no sure legal claim" to his photographs, photographs he had just displayed at the Royal Institution to packed audiences including the Royal family.

The book had been rushed into print while Muybridge was out of the USA (from his correspondence with Stillman it's clear he didn't expect it to be published for another year, and of course expected to be credited). It's as if someone had been slow in getting a paper into print on their experiment, someone else (who never even saw the experiments) wrote a book on what was done without mentioning the experimenter, and because of that the original experimenter wasn't allowed to publish.

In the short term, this was huge setback for Muybridge, and clearly it rankled with him for the rest of his life - but he was to be spurred by this into even greater things...

Brian Clegg is a popular science writer whose books include A Brief History of Infinity and Light Years.


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Last update 05 June 2007