The world as we know it today began in California in the late 1800s, and Eadweard Muybridge had a lot to do with it. This striking assertion is at the heart of Rebecca Solnit’s new book, which weaves together biography, history, and fascinating insights into art and technology to create a boldly original portrait of America on the threshold of modernity. The story of Muybridge—who in 1872 succeeded in capturing high-speed motion photographically—becomes a lens for a larger story about the acceleration and industrialization of everyday life. Solnit shows how the peculiar freedoms and opportunities of post–Civil War California led directly to the two industries—Hollywood and Silicon Valley—that have most powerfully defined contemporary society.
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About the Author
Rebecca Solnit is the author of numerous books, including Hope in the Dark, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. In 2003, she received the prestigious Lannan Literary Award.
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The Annihilation of Time and Space
In the spring of 1872 a man photographed a horse. The resulting photograph does not survive, but from this first encounter of a camera-bearing man with a fast-moving horse sprang a series of increasingly successful experiments that produced thousands of extant images. The photographs are well known, but they are most significant as the bridge to a new art that would transform the world. By the end of the 1870s, these experiments had led to the photographer's invention of the essentials of motion-picture technology. He had captured aspects of motion whose speed had made them as invisible as the moons of Jupiter before the telescope, and he had found a way to set them back in motion. It was as though he had grasped time itself, made it stand still, and then made it run again, over and over. Time was at his command as it had never been at anyone's before. A new world had opened up for science, for art, for entertainment, for consciousness, and an old world had retreated farther.
The man was Edward James Muybridge of San Francisco, already renowned for his photographs of the West. In the eight years of his motion-study experiments in California, he also became a father, a murderer, and a widower, invented a clock, patented two photographic innovations, achieved international renown as an artist and a scientist, and completed four other major photographic projects. These other projects are also about time: about the seasonal and geological time of landscape, about the difference between the time that the camera sees and the eye sees, about a war between two societies with radically different beliefs about time and space, about thepassage of a midsummer day's sunlight across a city in turmoil. The experience of time was itself changing dramatically during Muybridge's seventy-four years, hardly ever more dramatically than in the 1870s. In that decade the newly invented telephone and phonograph were added to photography, telegraphy, and the railroad as instruments for "annihilating time and space." The big corporations were spreading their grasp across wider spaces and into more subtle interstices of everyday life. The Indian wars were reaching their climax and their turning point. The modern world, the world we live in, began then, and Muybridge helped launch it.
Muybridge produced more successful high-speed photographs than anyone had before. His 1878 camera shutters were a triumph of engineering that made reliable exposures of a fraction of a second for the first time, a speed at which extremely rapid motion could be captured in focus rather than recorded as blurs. The photographs were also a triumph of chemistry, which made the film "fast" enough to record so brief an instant. They froze motion so that the legs of a trotting or galloping horse, then a leaping man, and eventually the movements of lions, doves, dancing women, water spilling, artists drawing, could be depicted as a sequence of still images. At the same time, Muybridge improved upon the zootrope, a small device invented in 1834 that makes a series of spinning images seen through a slot appear to be a single image in motion. His zoopraxiscope, as he called it, projected versions of his motion studies on a screen: moving pictures, pictures of motion. It was the first time photographs had dissected and reanimated actual motion, and it was the foundation of cinema, which emerged tentatively in 1889, in full force in France and the United States by 1895. Motion pictures proper were invented by others, but no matter which way the medium's genealogy is traced, it comes straight back to Muybridge. And motion pictures changed the relationship to time farther; they made it possible to step in the same river twice, to see not just images but events that had happened in other times and other places, almost to stop living where you were and start living in other places or other times. Movies became a huge industry, became how people envisioned themselves and the world, defined what they desired and what was desirable. The Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky thought that time itself, "time lost or spent or not yet had," was what people desired and fed upon in the films that became a collective dreamworld inhabited by multitudes. It all began with photographs of a horse in California.
Occident, the horse that Muybridge photographed in 1872, was one of the fastest trotting horses in the country. At that time trotting races were a national passion, and the great trotters were more celebrated than horses that ran their races. Occident belonged to Leland Stanford, who had brought speed to the country in a far more dramatic way, as one of the four masterminds of the transcontinental railroad completed three years earlier. Once, the North American continent had taken months to cross, and the passage was arduous and perilous. In the decade before the railroad the time had been whittled down to six or seven grueling weeks, barring accidents. With the completion of the railroad those three thousand miles of desert, mountain, prairie, and forest could be comfortably crossed in under a week. No space so vast had ever been shrunk so dramatically. The transcontinental railroad changed the scale of the earth itself, diminishing the time it took to circumnavigate the globe. Walt Whitman hailed it as the long-dreamed-of "Passage to India."
The railroad had utterly transformed its builders too, into multimillionaires, buyers of estates, commissioners of paintings and photographs, corrupters of politicians, controllers of much of California, managers of one of the most powerful monopolies this country has ever seen. Stanford was the president of their company, the Central Pacific Railroad, and its most visible figure. Governor, senator, thief on a grand scale, he also became a philanthropist on a grand scale with the establishment of Stanford University on the grounds of his vast country estate forty miles south of San Francisco, the site where Muybridge perfected his motion-study technology in the late 1870s. His sponsorship of Muybridge was his first venture into scientific research for its own sake. Stanford University carried and carries on this venture with a hybrid of commercial and pure research that continues to change the world. Like other immensely powerful men, Stanford affected the world indirectly. In person he seems to have been ponderous and a little dull, a respectable effect he may have cultivated, but his impact was, to use a term of the time, electrifying. Spatial changes on a continental scale, technological innovations, influences on national policy and the national economy, the thousands of men who worked for him, the vast edifices and institutions that arose under his direction, and the countless lives he affected are his real expression. His support and encouragement of Muybridge is not the least of these impersonal effects.
In the spring of 1872, a man photographed a horse. Stanford commissioned the photographs in the hope that they would solve a debate about whether a trotting horse ever has all four feet off the ground at a time. Muybridge's first photographs gave an affirmative answer to that minor scientific question, but by later in the decade he realized that the project had broader possibilities and got Stanford to underwrite his development of them. He told an associate he was going to "revolutionize photography" with the technique he developed, and he did. The story of what Muybridge accomplished with Stanford's support is a peculiarly California story. Much has been written about the artistic and literary modernism that was born in Paris, but only high culture was born there, though that high culture was a response to the pervasive alienations and liberations brought by industrialization. Another part of the modern world came from California, and this part was and is an amalgamation of technology, entertainment, and what gets called lifestyle that became part of everyday life for more and more people around the world and a form of industrialization itself. Perhaps because California has no past-no past, at least, that it is willing to remember-it has always been peculiarly adept at trailblazing the future. We live in the future launched there.
If one wanted to find an absolute beginning point, a creation story, for California's two greatest transformations of the world, these experiments with horse and camera would be it. Out of these first lost snapshots eventually came a world-changing industry, and out of the many places where movies are made, one particular place: Hollywood. The man who owned the horse and sponsored the project believed in the union of science and business and founded the university that much later generated another industry identified, like Hollywood, by its central place: Silicon Valley. Hollywood and Silicon Valley became, long after these men died, the two industries California is most identified with, the two that changed the world. They changed it, are changing it, from a world of places and materials to a world of representations and information, a world of vastly greater reach and less solid grounding. Muybridge's life before those eight years of the California motion studies was a preparation for that phenomenal productivity; his life afterward only polished, promoted, and enlarged upon what he had accomplished in those years. This book is about those years that followed upon that encounter between photographer and racehorse and about that man who seems in retrospect like a bullet shot through a book. His trajectory ripped through all the central stories of his time-the relationship to the natural world and the industrialization of the human world, the Indian wars, the new technologies and their impact on perception and consciousness. He is the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom.
Muybridge was forty-two when he began the motion studies, and he had been traveling toward this achievement down a circuitous path. He had been born Edward James Muggeridge on a street in Kingston-upon-Thames paralleling the banks of the Thames, not far upriver from London, on April 9, 1830. An ancient market town, Kingston had a millennium earlier been the place where seven Saxon kings of England were crowned. The lump of sandstone said to be their coronation stone was, with great ceremony, rescued from its long role as a mounting block and raised on a pedestal in the center of town in 1850. On the pedestal below this molar-shaped stone were carved the names of those kings, including two Eadweards. Though Muybridge wouldn't change his first name to Eadweard until his visit to England in 1882, he likely derived it from this monument (he changed his surname twice, to Muygridge in the 1850s and to Muybridge in the 1860s).
His own birthplace and childhood home was a row house only a few dozen feet away from the coronation stone, on the other side of one of the oldest surviving road bridges in Britain, a twelfth-century bridge across a small tributary of the Thames on which locals liked to idle and gossip. At the time, the town's buildings and pace of life seemed hardly changed over centuries: the mayor walked to church amid a procession every Sunday, the market square bustled, a night watchman patrolled the streets, locals got their water from the town pump and their beer from the many public houses. Muybridge's father, John Muggeridge, was a merchant dealing in grain and coal, and the ground floor of the family home had a wide entrance for horses and wagons to come through with their loads. John and Susan Muggeridge and their four sons lived above, in compact rooms whose back windows looked out onto the broad Thames itself, and some of the family business must have been conducted by barge. Like Stanford, Muybridge was born into a quiet commercial family in a provincial town, and like Stanford had he stayed where he was he might have lived and died having made hardly a ripple in history. It was California that set them free to become more influential than they could have imagined. Or California and the changing world around them, for their fame was achieved by taking hold of those changes and pushing them farther. The year of Muybridge's birth and the years of his childhood saw a set of inventions and discoveries that set the stage for his own.
John Muggeridge died in 1843, and like her mother before her Susan Muggeridge took over her husband's business and seems to have run it successfully, for in 1845 the corn and coal business was listed in her name. Muybridge's grandfather Edward Smith had died when his wife, Susannah Norman Smith, was pregnant with her ninth child. She assumed command of his flourishing barge business and ran it successfully until she passed it on to her older sons, and she presided regally over her large family and larger workforce for decades afterward. When Susannah Smith died at a great age in 1870, she owned more than a dozen houses and considerable other property, though the barge business with its stables of powerful horses seems to have unraveled. Barges had transformed the transport of goods in England before railroads arrived, and the manmade canals built in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century to accommodate them had transformed the English landscape. Before, most communities had relied largely on local materials for building supplies, provisions, and other materials. Roads were bad and sometimes dangerous, horses were expensive, and each village and town lived in a kind of isolation hard to imagine now. Most people who wanted to get somewhere walked, and many lived and died having never gone farther than a day's walk from home. By the early nineteenth century a carefully coordinated stagecoach system with horses changed every dozen miles or so brought traveling speeds up to ten miles an hour for those who could afford its exorbitant charges, and the coaches seemed reckless and godlike in their swiftness.
Goods moved on barges along canals dug into the landscape, and the barges themselves were a slow-moving business. Muybridge's cousin Maybanke Susannah Anderson recalled that when their grandfather Edward Smith "drove in his gig to London, to buy wheat or coal, he took under the seat of his gig, a carrier pigeon, and in his pocket a quill or two, and when he bought a cargo, he wrote on a small piece of paper the number of barges he needed, put the paper in the quill, tied it under the wing of the pigeon and set it free. Someone watching for the bird's arrival unfastened the quill, took the message to the barges, and they started." Pigeons were the fastest communications technology; horses were the fastest transportation technology; the barges moved at the speed of the river or the pace of the horses that pulled them along the canals. Nature itself was the limit of speed: humans could only harness water, wind, birds, beasts. Born into this almost medievally slow world, the impatient, ambitious, inventive Muybridge would leave it and link himself instead to the fastest and newest technologies of the day. But that world was already being transformed profoundly.
On September 15, 1830, less than six months after Muybridge's birth, the first passenger railroad opened. The celebrated young actress Fanny Kemble had been given a preview of the Manchester and Liverpool Railroad that August. In a letter to a friend she exclaimed, "The engine...set off at its utmost speed, thirty-five miles an hour, swifter than a bird flies (for they tried the experiment with a snipe). You cannot conceive what that sensation of cutting the air was; the motion is as smooth as possible too. I could have either read or written; and as it was, I stood up, and with my bonnet off 'drank the air before me.'...When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description." Thirty-five miles an hour was nearly as fast as the fastest horse, and unlike a gallop, it could be sustained almost indefinitely. It was a dizzying speed. Passengers found the landscape out the train windows was blurred, impossible to contemplate, erased by speeds that would now seem a slow crawl to us. Those who watched the trains approach sometimes thought they were physically getting larger, because the perceptual change in a large object approaching at that speed was an unprecedented phenomenon. Ulysses S. Grant remembered riding on one of the early railroads in Pennsylvania in 1839 with the same amazement that most early travelers recorded: "We traveled at least eighteen miles an hour when at full speed, and made the whole distance averaging as much as twelve miles an hour. This seemed like annihilating space." If distance was measured in time, then the world had suddenly begun to shrink; places connected by railroads were, for all practical purposes, several times closer to each other than they ever had been.
At the railroad's official opening, Kemble returned to ride with her mother, who was "frightened to death" of "a situation which appeared to her to threaten with instant annihilation herself and all her traveling companions." That celebration of a thousand passengers and almost a million onlookers along the route was interrupted by an actual annihilation, the death of the progressive Tory politician William Huskisson. At a stop to take on water for the steam engines, Huskisson got out to stretch and was hit by an oncoming train. It is hard to imagine today the reflexes and responses that made it impossible to step away from a noisy locomotive going perhaps thirty miles an hour, but Huskisson could not. His leg was run over and crushed. Though the duke of Wellington applied a tourniquet to prevent him from bleeding to death on the spot, he died that evening. In Manchester the duke, who had been the hero of the battle of Waterloo and was now the prime minister preventing the democratization of voting, was greeted with angry cries of "Remember Peterloo." The railroad cars had to retreat hastily. It was no coincidence that the first railroad linked two of the Industrial Revolution's primary sites or that the Manchester workers linked the duke and the new technology to the 1819 Peterloo massacre of workers demanding reform. Industrial workers saw the new market economy as bleak and brutal, and they launched a powerful reform movement in the 1830s to gain a voice in it. The agricultural economy was as grim: the Captain Swing riots in the south of England that season of the first passenger railroad's opening protested starvation wages and wrecked reaping machines. An old order had vanished, to be replaced not by a new one but by turbulence and continual change.
Long afterward, Kemble called this railroad "the first mesh of that amazing iron net which now covers the whole surface of England and all the civilized portions of the earth." The Industrial Revolution preceded railroads, but railroads magnified its effects and possibilities unfathomably, and these roaring, puffing machines came to seem that revolution incarnate. Often compared to dragons, they devoured coal and iron in unprecedented quantities, spreading mines and mills wherever they went. In the United States, they ran on wood, and whole forests were fed into their boilers, as though the landscape itself were being devoured by speed. Railroads made possible the consolidation of industries and the industrialization of traditional activities. The fast, cheap transport of goods meant that a town could be given over to shoe-making or beer-making, a whole region to cattle raising or wheatgrowing, and people grew used to depending upon commodities that seemed to come from nowhere. The New England philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson opined in 1844, "Not only is distance annihilated, but when, as now, the locomotive and the steamboat, like enormous shuttles, shoot every day across the thousand various threads of national descent and employment, and bind them fast in one web, an hourly assimilation goes forward and there is no danger that local peculiarities and hostilities should be preserved." He saw the network of railroads undoing the local character of every place and approved of the erasure. People were being drawn out of their small familiar worlds into one more free, less personal, in which the associations that once attached to each person, place, and object came undone. It was a leap forward of extraordinary liberation and equal alienation.
Grant and Emerson were sounding variations on one of the stock phrases of the day, "the annihilation of time and space," which was applied over and over to railroads and other new technologies. "Annihilating time and space" is what most new technologies aspire to do: technology regards the very terms of our bodily existence as burdensome. Annihilating time and space most directly means accelerating communications and transportation. The domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel sped up the rate and volume of transit; the invention of writing made it possible for stories to reach farther across time and space than their tellers and stay more stable than memory; and new communications, reproduction, and transportation technologies only continue the process. What distinguishes a technological world is that the terms of nature are obscured; one need not live quite in the present or the local.
Between the time of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the industrial age, wheel-drawn transportation, roads, and ships were improved, but only the printing press made a major alteration in means. Afterward, the devices for such annihilation poured forth faster and faster, as though inventiveness and impatience had sped and multiplied too. Nothing annihilated more dramatically than railroads. As people and goods traveled more frequently and farther, experience was standardized. Distance had always been roughly measurable in time, the stable time of human or equine locomotion, but the railroad transformed those equations, shortening the time and thereby seeming to decrease the distance. The world began to shrink, and local differences to dissipate. People could go much farther because places were not, in terms of time, so far apart, nor was travel so expensive. Distance was relative; a technological infrastructure could shrink it spectacularly. Early in the twentieth century, when Albert Einstein reached for metaphors to explain his theory of relativity, he repeatedly seized upon the image of a train running across the landscape, a train whose passengers were experiencing time differently than those on the ground.
Railroads transformed the experience of nature, and they transformed the landscape itself. Kemble had been amazed by the cuttings, tunnels and viaducts that leveled the route of the Manchester and Liverpool Railroad, raising the train far above and dropping it below the surface of the earth. "I felt as if no fairy tale was ever half so wonderful as what I saw," she said. Amateur geologists found a rich resource in the railroad cuttings that laid bare Britain's rock and fossils. Geology was the key science of the Victorian era, as physics was of the modern era and perhaps genetics is today, and in that era geology texts sometimes outsold popular novels. One such book was Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, whose first volume was published the year of Muybridge's birth and Kemble's ride. Geologists had begun to debate the age of the earth. Bible scholars asserted that the earth was only about six thousand years old. Its rocks suggested a far greater age to those who studied them, but they did not agree among themselves how old. Catastrophists argued for a comparatively young earth in which forces far more violent than those presently at work had wrenched and welded its topography, and some still claimed Noah's flood had placed aquatic fossils in the heights. The uniformitarians believed that earthquakes, volcanoes, erosion, and other forces still at work must have gradually shaped the earth, and it must be far more ancient than had ever been imagined. Lyell had gone to Sicily to study Mount Etna and concluded that its massive cone was the result of aeons of small eruptions, and that cone sat atop relatively young rocks. His uniformitarian Principles portrayed an earth whose age was in the millions of years.
The railroad shrank space through the speed of its motion. Geology expanded time through the slowness of its processes and the profundity of its changes. When they subcribed to the old biblical scale of time, human beings seem to have marched as confidently as elephants, sure they were center stage in a drama whose beginning and end were near at hand and whose set changes were slight. In the new industrial and scientific sense of time, they swarmed and darted like insects, quick but uncertain of their place in a cavalcade of unimaginable length. Expelled from the cozy millenia of biblical time, Lyell's wide audience found itself on a vast plateau of millions of years of geological time. As his colleague George Poulette Scrope put it in 1829, "The periods which to our narrow apprehension...appear of incalculable duration, are in all probability but trifles in the calendar of Nature. It is Geology that, above all other sciences, makes us acquainted with this important though humiliating fact....The leading idea which is present in all our researches, and which accompanies every fresh observation, the sound to which the student of Nature seems continually echoed from every part of her works, is- Time! Time! Time!" It was geology, specifically Lyell's book that he took with him on the Beagle's sail around the world from 1831 to 1836, that would lead Charles Darwin to his theory of evolution, and that theory would further transform the place of human beings on the stage of life, more distant from God and closer to the other species. Muybridge, by photographing human beings as "animals in motion" among other animals, took a Darwinian stance.
from River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West by Rebecca Solnit, Copyright © February 2003, Viking Press, a member of the Penguin Group, Inc., used by permission.
Table of Contents
River of ShadowsThe Annihilation of Time and Space
The Man with the Cloudy Skies
Lessons of the Golden Spike
Standing on the Brink
A Day in the Life, Two Deaths, More Photographs
Skinning the City
The Artist in Motion and at Rest
From the Center of the World to the Final Frontier
What People are Saying About This
“One finds it hard to remember what things looked like before this book appeared in the world.” —The New York Times Book Review
“The imagery of a poet, the ideas of a theoretician, the rhythm of a thoroughbred and the force of a Southern Pacific locomotive.” —San Francisco Chronicle