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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