Film History Essentials: Falling Cat (1894)

What it’s about:

A white cat is dropped, upside-down, from 3 or 4 feet above a cushioned surface. It rights itself in midair and lands on all four paws, dropping into a crouch.

Why it’s essential:

Étienne-Jules Marey never ran out of subjects for his innovative chronophotography. He began, long before he turned to photography, with a keen interest in anatomy and physiology, studying the inner workings (and movements) of the body’s systems. He studied the flight of insects and of birds, which eventually led to the development of his famous techniques, and he used trails of smoke to study aerodynamics. He studied the motions of countless animals on land, sea, and air, fast and slow, large and microscopic. He studied athletes competing at the peak of their respective sports. He studied the motions of waves of liquid. And, near the end of 1894, he turned his attention to something that had been troubling physicists for years: The Falling Cat Problem, or how do cats always land on their feet, no matter how you drop them, or from where?

The question seems trivial, even frivolous, but finding the answer interested physicists of the time because a cat appearing to rotate independently in free-fall seemed to violate the law of conservation of angular momentum. Many were of the opinion that the cat was “cheating” by “kicking off” from the hand of the person dropping them, while others suggested that it was somehow using air resistance to push off of, but it was a conundrum that couldn’t be resolved with the naked eye. Enter Marey and chronophotography.

On November 10, 1894, La Nature published perhaps his most clunkily-titled article: “Des mouvements que certains animaux exécutent pour retomber sur leurs pieds, lorsqu’ils sont précipités d’un lieu élevé” (“Of the movements which certain animals perform in order to fall back on their feet, when they are thrown from a high place”). You can see the article and his attached photographs here. In it, he explains why both prevailing theories are incorrect, and offers the true explanation: That cats move the front and back halves of their body independently, twisting their torsos and extending and tucking in their front and back legs in order to generate the momentum needed to turn over as they fall.

Incidentally, Marey mentions early in the article that he had tried the same experiment with dogs and rabbits (and we also know that he tried it with chickens) and observed that they were able to accomplish much the same feat, although it’s cats that are famous for it. Despite the explanation and the photographic evidence, some physicists were not convinced. A full scientific explanation, with attendant diagrams and mathematical formulae, did not come until 1969 . . . and even with that question definitively answered, some might say that cats remain as mysterious as ever.

Why you should see it:

Happily, curiosity did not kill the cat in this instance, but it did lead to what seems to be the first appearance by a cat in a motion picture, and you’ll find many people hailing Marey’s chronophotographic study as the first-ever cat video. You’ll notice that, although the photographs printed in the article clearly show a complete picture of the cat being held upside down, being dropped, and turning over, the footage that has survived (or, at least, the footage that is available online) shows a great deal less. It really is just of a cat dropping onto a cushion. By the time the cat has fully entered the frame, it has already reoriented itself, and there are only about 2 frames right at the beginning where you can see part of the rotation happening. You can see a fuller image in this “restoration” here.

~ by Jared on January 24, 2023.

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