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Stanford Red Barn in Stanford, California

The Victorian Red Barn on Stanford University's campus

If it weren’t for a wager between colleagues, we may not have movies as we know them today. In 1872, the world’s first stop-motion film was made outside this barn—to settle a bet about how horses run.

The question at hand: When a horse is galloping, do all four of its hooves leave the ground at the same time at any point? Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University, claimed that they did, while some of his colleagues held that at least one hoof was always touching the ground. Stanford looked to Eadweard Muybridge, an English-American landscape photographer, to help him prove his answer.

Stanford bred and raced horses, and had a barn on the northernmost corner of Stanford University’s campus in California. The Intercollegiate Riding & Equestrian Center—more commonly known as the Red Barn—would be their proving ground. With the help of several railway engineers, Muybridge set up a series of 12 cameras with tripwires along the Red Barn’s racing track. They had a horse circle the track at its fastest gait, and took a series of photographs. After several failed attempts, Muybridge was eventually successful in capturing a series of continuous images, which he compiled into a film called The Horse in Motion

The film proved Stanford’s theory correct, and also laid the groundwork for the invention of modern cinema. Several years after the experiments at Stanford, Muybridge would invent the zoopraxiscope, a device for displaying motion pictures that was a predecessor to movie projectors. The device helped inspire the Kinetoscope, the first commercial film exhibition system invented by Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Dickson.

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