Falling Cat (1894): More Than the First Cat Video

8falling_cat-mareyMore than 100 years before YouTube and our collective obsession with viral cat videos, there was Étienne-Jules Marey and his falling cat.

Marey wasn’t necessarily a filmmaker, he was a scientist dedicated to studying physiology. More specifically, Marey was interested in how muscles movements and how animals conducted basic motions. Starting small, Marey photographed the flying patterns of insets before moving on to larger birds and mammals. Working at the close of the 19th century, Marey was exposed to a technological and scientific boom that produced innovative new means for composing experiments. Marey became an admirer of the European filmmaking movements, and paid particular attention to Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic collages (he of the Horse in Motion filmstrip, 1878). While others looked at Muybridge’s work as a brave new world of artistic representation, Marey saw a long sought solution for advancing learning. Keeping insights from Muybridge in mind, the industrious Marey set to work completing his own camera.

Marey produced several camera prototypes over the next three decades, specializing in a process that captured a rapid series of photographs using a filmstrip spurred by an electromagnet. Marey’s preferred invention resembled a shotgun, and was thus unofficially dubbed the ‘photographic gun.’ It was on one of these models that the scientist captured his famous Falling Cat video in 1894. Common knowledge dictates that a cat always lands on its four feet, but scientists such as Marey were perplexed by just how these flexible felines achieved such a feat. Physicists and physiologists alike wondered at the seeming impossibility of the cat quickly contorting its body, a quandary thats been aptly labeled the falling cat problem. With his trusty photographic gun in hand, Marey set about to finally solve this problem, and unknowingly leave his mark on film history.

Marey’s still images on the cascading kitten were published in the scientific journal Nature in 1894. The scientific community finally possessed solid evidence for the cat conundrum, and Marey was able to prove that the falling body used the force of its own descent to power the rotation necessary to complete a successful landing.

Marey’s explanation wasn’t immediately recognized by the scientific community,  but his contribution to filmmaking started a conversation about how this technology could be utilised. We’ve already classified the war for the spirit of motion pictures as either art or documentary, but Marey’s insights introduce the new possibility of scientific discourse. Too bad today’s cat videos don’t have as much to offer as their great grandkitten.


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