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Why a cat always lands on its feet

In 1894, a French scientist used a camera to solve a physics problem.

Coleman Lowndes is a lead producer who has covered history, culture, and photography since joining the Vox video team in 2017.

Scientists in the late 19th century wanted to settle a curious physics problem: Why does a cat always lands on its feet? It should be impossible to reorient your body midair without pushing off of something first, but cats seem able to do it.

Étienne-Jules Marey used a camera to settle the question in 1894 with his series Photographs of a Tumbling Cat.

Photographs of a Tumbling Cat, 1894.
Étienne-Jules Marey

Marey was a French scientist and inventor who analyzed how things moved. He developed a way to photograph multiple stages of movement onto a single glass plate, a technique called chronophotography.

Later, when Kodak introduced celluloid film, Marey swapped the glass plate for a roll of film that moved between exposures. This technique formed the basis of cinematography, and it’s how he recorded the stages of a cat righting itself in midair. He published his findings in Nature and demonstrated how the cat splits its body in two and uses the inertia of its own body weight to spin around.

To learn more about Marey’s method and the science behind the “cat-righting reflex,” check out the video above. And for more Vox videos, make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel.

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