Now You See It

04 09 isambard kingdom brunelToday I am celebrating two birthdays of two innovative Englishmen. Isambard Kingdom Brunel who was born in 1806 and Eadweard Muybridge who was born in 1830.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was born in Portsmouth. He has an odd name. The Kingdom Brunel part is just his parent surnames and Isambard is a Norman name of Germanic origin that, rather fittingly for an engineer, means ‘iron bright’. Brunel was both prolific and innovative. He built dockyards, railways, steam ships bridges and tunnels. He also invented a vacuum powered railway and a prefabricated hospital to send to the Crimea. But today I want to tell you a more personal story about him.

 In 1843 Mr Brunel was performing a disappearing coin trick for his children which involved putting a sovereign in his mouth and pulling it out of his ear. Unfortunately he managed to somehow inhale the coin and it lodged in his windpipe.  He approached the problem like an engineer and had himself strapped to a platform, of his own specifications, that could turn him upside down. He hoped the coin would drop out. He felt it fall but it lodged against his epiglottis, he began to choke and had to give up. Then he had a  tracheotomy, which he would have undergone without anesthetic, and surgeons attempted to remove the coin with forceps. The operation caused more distress and had to be abandoned without success. The incision was kept open though and when he had recovered enough, he was again inverted on his machine. This time, because of the tracheotomy, he could still breathe when the coin fell against his epiglottis. So after a couple of coughs the coin fell into his mouth. The sovereign had been lodged in his chest for around six weeks.

04 09 eadweard muybridgeEadweard Muybridge also has an unusual name. He chose it himself. He was born Edward Muggeridge. He also suffered an accident, but the consequences were more long-lasting. In 1860 he was a successful bookseller in San Francisco who was travelling by stagecoach across America on his way home to England to buy antiquarian books. In Texas the stagecoach crashed and he was thrown out and hit his head badly. He had to be taken 150 miles to Arkansas for treatment. He remained there for three months, suffering from double vision, confused thinking and impaired senses. He then had another year of treatment in New York before he was well enough to continue his journey. It is likely that he suffered serious and permanent brain damage. Friends said that his behaviour changed significantly he became erratic and eccentric. He also became… a photographer.

04 09 yosemiteIn 1867 he returned to America to take a series of spectacular landscape photographs, particularly in the Yosemite valley. He seems to have had little sense of personal danger. That tiny figure in the photo on the left, the one perched on a rock overhanging a 2,000 ft drop, that’s him.

Muybridge is most famous for taking the series of pictures that proved, for the first time, that a horse has all four of its hooves off the ground whilst galloping. He devised a way of taking a number of sequential images using twelve separate cameras. At first, the shutters were triggered by a thread as the horse passed by. He later used a clockwork mechanism. He even found a way of making the photographs into a moving image, by copying them in silhouette onto a glass disc and spinning them in a machine he called a zoopraxiscope which could project the images. His machine would inspire Edison to build his kinetoscope which would in turn fire the imaginations of the Lumière brothers. Muybridge went on to take thousands of sequential images, both of animals and humans, particularly for the University of Pennsylvania. I’m particularly fond of this galloping buffalo.

04 09 galloping horse


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