Why a Cat Always Lands on Its Feet: How a French Scientist Used Photography to Solve the Problem in 1894

In the era of the CATS trailer and #catsofinstagram, it’s easy to forget that scientific research is what originally convinced our feline friends to allow their images to be captured and disseminated.

An anonymous white French pussy took one for the team in 1894, when scientist/inventor Étienne-Jules Marey dropped it from an unspecified height in the Bois de Boulogne, filming its descent at 12 frames per second.

Ultimately, this brave and likely unsuspecting specimen furthered the cause of space exploration, though it took over 50 years for NASA-backed researchers T.R. Kane and M.P. Scher to publish their findings in a paper titled "A Dynamical Explanation of the Falling Cat Phenomenon."




As the Vox Darkroom episode above makes clear, Marey’s obsession was loftier than a fondness for Stupid Pet Tricks and the mischievous impulse to drop things off of tall buildings that motivated TV host David Letterman once upon a time.

Marey's preoccupation with the mechanics of organic locomotion extended to horses and humans. It prompted him to invent photographic techniques that prefigured cinematography, and, more darkly, to subject other, less-catlike creatures to deadfalls from similar heights.

(Children and animal rights activists, consider this your trigger warning.)

The white cat survived its ordeal by arching its back mid-air, effectively splitting its body in two to harness the inertia of its body weight, much like a figure skater controlling the velocity of her spin by the position of her arms.

Why waste a single one of your nine lives? Physics is your friend, especially when falling from a great height.

See one of Marey's pioneering falling cat chronophotographs below.

Related Content:

Thomas Edison’s Boxing Cats (1894), or Where the LOLCats All Began

An Animated History of Cats: How Over 10,000 Years the Cat Went from Wild Predator to Sofa Sidekick

Explosive Cats Imagined in a Strange, 16th Century Military Manual

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


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