Etienne-Jules Marey - Physiologist and Cinematic Pioneer (1830-1904)

Early Life

Marey was born on March 5th, 1830 in Beaune, France, the son of a wine merchant. On his father's advice, he went to Paris to study medicine at the Collège de France, and became a surgeon's assistant in 1855. His doctoral dissertation of 1857 on the mechanical recording of the circulation of blood, was followed by ten years of experimentation with various instruments used for monitoring the pulse and heart. In 1863, he developed the first accurate sphygmograph, which graphically recorded the pulse and blood pressure variations, and was a predecessor to the modern sphygmomanometer, which we now use to measure blood pressure.


He became Professor of Natural History at the Collège de France in 1867, and specialized in human and animal physiology. In 1868, he was awarded the chair of Natural History of Organized Bodies, a position which he held until death.

In 1882, Marey designed a photographic gun, the zoopraxiscope, (from a Colt revolving rifle), to aid Eadweard Muybridge in photographing birds in flight. In 1888, the ideas behind the zoopraxiscope led to the development of what is considered by many to be his greatest achievement: the chronophotograph. This device was capable of exposing 12 frames per second with a shutter speed of 1/72 of a second. This early cinematic device provided the first quantifiable photographic record of human movement.

He did many studies of humans in motion wearing a black suit with metal threadings (of Marey's design). The subjects walked in front of black panels and their movements were recorded by one camera, on a single metal plate. This crude method of time-photography is considered by many to be the birth of cinema. In the 1890's, he used his inventions to photograph turbulence in a wind tunnel.

Marey died on May 15, 1904 in Paris.