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August 12, 2020

Chronophotographic Gun, the First Invention to Capture Moving Images on the Same Plate, 1882

A polymorphic scientific, Étienne-Jules Marey (5 March 1830 – 15 May 1904) explored numerous techniques and disciplines, obsessed by one unique concept: movement. First interested in flight, he studied birds and imagined mechanical devices capable of flying. From 1878, he focused on movement within human beings and, inspired by Edward Muybridge he had met in 1881, used photography to document his research.

He thus imagined, in 1882, a camera entitled photographic gun that enabled him to capture a moving subject in twelve poses. Étienne Jules Marey thus decomposed the gestures of men practicing sports, animals in motion, everyday tasks precisely observed and even the migration of air. He also invented the chonophotography that would be the precursor of cinema. Photography in its early days was the ultimate accomplice of reality but with Étienne Jules Marey (and Edward Muybridge), photography suddenly also captured the invisible.

The chronophotographic gun invented by Étienne-Jules Marey.

Illustration of the chronophotographic gun from La Nature by Louis Poyet, 1882.

Marey was a doctor and he was interested in the body movement, which was not much well studied at the time. With the chronophotographic gun, he pointed to the action he was interested to investigate and he only shot once and got 12 images per second. The machine, thanks to the circular movement of the drum animated by clockwork mechanisms, could reach a shutter speed of 1/700 seconds. This speed was caused by the discovery of new chemical substances, which were increasingly sensible to light. Then, when the images were revealed, they were printed on a previously prepared glass with a gelatinous dissolution of silver bromide and they ended up all together on the same photograph. In this way, he had a sequence of images in which the movement he wanted to study was portrayed, showing the details never seen before of the movement of the persons and animals. He called this method of making photographs chronophotography.

One of the main problems of this invention was that the different photos could not be made from the same point of view, since the user remained still while what he wanted to photograph moved very quickly. To solve this problem, the chronophotograph was invented; it had the same characteristics as the chronophotographic gun but had rails which allowed it to make a lateral displacement. This way an equal point of view was obtained in all the photographs.

Étienne-Jules Marey among his inventions (sphygmograph, sound-recording instruments, model of bird-flight, projector, camera)

Among the different things he studied there are: the flight of birds, the jump of a man, how cats fall from four legs, etc.

This method of photography had already been used in a similar manner by Eadweard Muybridge in 1887. He used not a single camera to take 12 images, but used 12 different devices, and he managed to portray the gallop of a horse.

Chronophotograph of a man clearing a hurdle (1892).

The Running Lion Tamer (1886). In his experiments documenting humans in motion, Marey had his subjects dress up in a black garment and would apply small reflective markers on their joints. This enabled him to make a detailed report of their movement.

The movement of a running white horse (1886).

A galloping horse (1887).

Falling cat (1894). The cat was part of Marey’s famous study to prove that the animal always landed on its feet. He tried the same with a chicken and a dog, and achieved similar results.

Flapping herons (1886). Marey went on to create a drum containing ten models of the motion of a flying bird in respective phases. By rotating the drum, viewers received a perfect illusion of the bird’s flight.

Walking man carrying a weight (1885).

A flying pelican (1882).


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