Note: This piece is extracted from a larger work-in-progress, and has been modified so as to better stand alone. Nevertheless, some references inevitably require contextualization that will come with further elaboration.
The English carousel is the only carousel type in the world to rotate clockwise. While this feature is in and of itself significant in its very uniqueness, it is a more general mechanical process common to all carousels that creates the impression of flight that sometimes affords this great toy the name of the “flying horses” or the “flying whinnies.”
The center pole of the carousel is a great axle, out from the midpoint of which extend beams, called “sweeps,” like the spokes of an enormous wheel. This structure of long planks is linked to the center pole by cables running upwards the length of the pole to the main bearing. Steel rods descend from the sweeps to hold a circular platform in suspension above the ground, allowing the floor to turn by means of an engine positioned at the center pole. An earlier inception of the carousel, the “flying jenny,” had no such platform: each horse hung freely from the ceiling beams, and the center pole was turned by the shoulders of servants or donkeys. Ultimately, the site of the carousel horses' “flight” can be located initially in the axle of the center pole, and thereafter in the physical movement that results in the four hooves of the horses altogether leaving the earth.
It would be simple enough to appeal to a technical explanation by making the point that the very word axle etymologically relates to the Old Norse oxl, meaning “shoulder,” and to the the Latin ala, meaning “wing.” One might even go so far as to mention that the ancient Aztec game of Palo Volador, wherein four players costume themselves as macaws and swing through the air from lengthy tethers, had at its center a ninety-foot tall “flying pole” to which said ropes were attached. Even the apparent universality suggested by this semiotic note, however, can only fall short of recognizing the symbolic value of the mechanism in full, which becomes apparent only in light of the end to which it carries its charges. In short, the horses of the carousel do indeed seem to rise bodily into the air, if only momentarily.
The notion of a horse suspended midair however briefly is no piddling matter. That all four hooves of a horse ever leave the ground at once was once upon a time an issue of serious contention. The final decades of the nineteenth-century saw scientists argue hotly the definition of a “pace;” artists painted speeding horses not knowing whether to depict its fourth hoof higher or lower; and equine enthusiasts set up odds against the truth of the matter whenever they were not busy playing odds against the track. It was as genuine a problem as science has ever faced.
This strange debate reached its penultimate conclusion in the experiments of Etienne-Jules Marey, a scientist whose career had passed from the study of heartbeats on to the general movements of the body. In his Animal Mechanism: Terrestrial and Aerial Locomotion, the English-language edition of which appeared in 1874, Marey describes his process of recording equine movement. A hard ball of india-rubber filled with horsehair having first been fastened to the underside of the four hooves, a tube was then run from the ball to a device held by the rider. This device consisted of a uniformly rotating cylinder that, upon registering the burst of air produced by the hooves' pounding upon the ground whereupon the ball of india-rubber was subsequently compressed, would force the application of a needlepoint to a piece of paper held within the apparatus. The resulting pattern yielded a visual description of the rise and fall of the hooves. After defining for himself the categorical distinctions between the various paces of the animal, Marey produced a series of graphs for each: the trot revealed a perfect break between the fall of the hooves. The horse is suspended.
Earlier in this same work Marey had suggested the possible employment of a certain children's toy in studying the movement of humans—but made no mention of this in reference to the study of the horse. Perhaps this omission is owed to the fact that the toy, popularly known as the Zootrope, had to this point been used exclusively in conjunction with fanciful drawings. The Zootrope is constructed of a cylinder with holes cut vertically at regular intervals; each section between the holes is fitted with an illustration on the interior of the cylinder; each illustration varies just slightly enough so that when the cylinder is spun on a base an optical illusion is created when viewed through the slats, giving the impression that the illustration itself possesses animation. Marey could well have expected an artist to faithfully render the successive movements of a human figure, but the horse's motions would have to first be confirmed. Nevertheless, the conjunction of the Zootrope's logic and the serialized image of the horse would not go unrealized for long.
Two years prior to the appearance of Marey's book, Leland Stanford—one-time governor of California, well-to-do business man, and race-horse owner—rather vocally made his opinion of the “four-hooves” matter perfectly clear: the horse becomes airborne. It wasn't enough, of course, to say so. Stanford would have his proof. The man he hired to obtain it was Eadweard Muybridge.
Muybridge was a vagabond photographer and tinkerer, prone to grandiose self-appraisals. One habit, for example, was his insistence on signing his photographs with the name “Helios,” the Greek god of the sun. Such a pseudonym contains more than even Muybridge himself might have guessed. Because of his aerial position this god was sometimes referred to as Helios Panoptes—Helios, who sees all things. Indeed, the conception of the sun as a panoptic deity was not entirely obsolete even in the rapidly industrializing era that Muybridge enjoyed. The Christian faith had merely transfigured the pagan system to meet its own narrative. For a long while now the sun had been the “eye of God.” Certainly there could be no greater emblem for a wanderer whose closest companion was his camera. Moreover, it ought to be noted that the mythic Helios moved across the sky in a chariot pulled by flying horses.
Muybridge's employment by Leland Stanford began in 1872, and while the soon-to-be-published findings of Marey would strengthen the claim of “flight” they would ultimately fail to satisfy popular imagination, let alone put an end to the controversy. That year of 1874 did, on the other hand, bring Muybridge a certain bizarre success—albeit one that woefully interrupted his immediate field of research. Muybridge, it seems, had one day intercepted a letter intended for his wife. The missive was from one Major Harry Larkyns, with whom the photographer's wife appeared to be on intimate terms. Larkyns in his letter asked Mrs. Muybridge if she would not leave her husband. On October 17 Muybridge approached Larkyns personally, saying to him, “Good evening, Major, my name is Muybridge and here's the answer to the letter you sent my wife.” With this Muybridge promptly brandished a pistol and interjected a new space in the world where previously only the veteran's heart had seen fit to exist.
During his murder trial Muybridge pled insanity. The claim was not entirely unreasonable, as he had in fact some years earlier been involved in a traumatic stagecoach collision, resulting in a severe injury to the head. It was acknowledged by those close to him that he had not been quite the same since. Nonetheless, the insanity defense was not to the liking of the jury. Instead they acquitted him by reason of “justifiable homicide.” No, Muybridge's action was not due to some disordering at the brainpan, quite the contrary—it was a violent passion of the heart that caused him to lose his head.
Following his trial Muybridge with his camera traveled south to Mexico and as far as Central America. It was a fitting decision, for this was the Land of the Sun; land of the Aztecs, the People of the Sun, who once sacrificed the hearts of warriors; land of the great flying game of Palo Volador. Muybridge's personal motives and experiences during this journey cannot be known. What can be known, however, is the myth that ties these pieces together, providing for Muybridge a kind of analogy not unlike that which he provided for himself with his signature of “Helios.”
According to Aztec tradition, each age belongs to a different sun. Four suns had come and gone, and now was the age of the fifth. The origin of this sun begins with a gathering of the gods, wondering aloud who among them would be the one to bestow light upon the earth. The god Tecuciztecatl said he would be the one. Another was also needed, and a rather insignificant god named Nanauatzin was chosen. A fire was lit: Tecuciztecatl brought forth his offerings, all expensive things of the highest quality, while the quiet Nanauatzin presented gifts apropos of his humility. The fire burned for four nights, during which time the two gods did penance, and after which came the hour of sacrifice. The two gods wore the adornments of birds, Tecuciztecatl having real feathers and Nanauatzin having simple paper imitations. Thus they approached the fire. Tecuciztecatl attempted to throw himself into the flames, but could not bring himself to do so after even four attempts. The came Nanauatzin's turn, the only he would need: an eagle followed him into the flames. Seeing the bravery of this humble god who now burned before him, Tecuciztecatl at last flung himself in the fire: an ocelot followed him. The other gods fell to their knees, for Nanauatzin was now too bright to be looked upon. From the East he arose—he had “become the sun.” Tecuciztecatl also arose, but he was not so bright. Because of his hesitancy he had become the moon. Finally, the time had come for all the other gods to die. Quetzalcoatl, the wind, came and tore out their hearts, scattering them and setting them alight. They became the stars.
The impetuous for the ritual sacrificing of hearts by the Aztec peoples is, in this context, relatively understandable. The relation to the game of the Volador is perhaps less so. The game, as previously mentioned, requires four players dressed as birds to turn through the air around an enormous center pole, while a fifth participant—dressed as a monkey—sits atop the pole maintaining the rotation of the players' ropes. Thirteen times around the pole these “bird-men” fly, all totaling a combined fifty-two times. Fifty-two years was the longest measurement of time for the Aztecs, and it was the measure of an age. Hence, the four players represent the four previous ages, while the fifth still reigns above. In this sense the Volador is a kind of ecstatic calendar, drawing direct connections between a star, the passage of time, and a symbolically charged animal figure. One might even describe it as a sort of participatory Zodiac, a way of reenacting the “animal wheel” of the sky.
It is not impossible to imagine that this conjunction of light, time and animal flight might have prompted an epiphany in the wayward Muybridge. He returned to the United States in 1877, and within a year had realized a solution to the “four-hooves” problem. Muybridge arranged a series of cameras along the edge of a racetrack, each one rigged to a tripwire extended across the track itself. When the horse passed through the tripwires a succession of photographs were taken—not unlike the drawings common to the Zootrope. There, at last, was the long sought for evidence.
Not only had Muybridge produced a photograph of a horse suspended above the ground, he created a technique that would allow the action itself to be viewed at a speed compatible with the human eye. Combining the result of his experiment with the mechanical logic of the Zootrope, Muybridge created his own variation on the toy called the Zoopraxiscope. While this device actually varied little from its predecessor this first usage is here notable, for although Muybridge's images of the horse faced right—which on the carousel would require the average counterclockwise movement—because the series was set on the interior of the cylinder the horses nevertheless rotated clockwise in order to appear to move forward.
Muybridge earned widespread fame for his innovation. Taking his Zoopraxiscope on tour, he sailed to Europe, where none other than Etienne-Jules Marey served as his host in Paris. Not long afterwards, in 1882, Marey himself would provide the logical follow-up to Muybridge's work, effectively making him the first person to shoot motion pictures with a single camera. And it is no accident that the word “shoot” should here be first applied to the taking of photographs—the camera Marey invented looked exactly like a rifle, right down to the butt. Thus the birth of cinema began with a shoulder weapon.
In a way it was always the impossibility of knowing the answer to the “four-hooves” question that had for so long provided the carousel the nickname of the “flying horses.” Indeed, it was this mystery that fostered the very idea of flight otherwise created physically by the simple suspension of the rotating horses above the ground. The solution to the riddle could only be brought about by a new machine, one that would fundamentally shift the experience of movement away from physical locomotion towards a sense of movement-without-moving—a movement of the eye. Soon eyes turned away from the constellations to admire new deities as “movie stars” emerged from flickering screens. A radical change had taken place, driving the old modes of experience into obsolescence. Turn though they might, never again would the horses of the carousel fly.