The history of time lapse photography owes a great deal to scientists and visual artists, but its origins can be traced to a racetrack — and the rumor of a whopping bet.

Photographers still used metal or glass plates in the 1870s, when what was arguably the first time lapse photography took place. Leland Stanford, a railroad tycoon and former California governor, was enjoying his success as a gentleman owner on the horse racing circuit. Horse aficionados of the day were locked in debate over whether all four hooves of a trotting or galloping horse ever left the ground simultaneously. Stanford was convinced they did, but nobody’s eyes were good enough to tell for certain. To find proof, he hired Eadweard Muybridge, a rather eccentric Englishman who’d once been a bookseller and would eventually be convicted of justifiable homicide for the murder of his wife’s lover, but who also had become an internationally recognized photographer while living in California.

It took five years of sporadic experiments between 1872 and 1878, but eventually Muybridge worked out a series of cameras, with a trip wire to each, placed roughly every two feet along a track one of Stanford’s horses then ran. The horse’s legs or surrey wheels tripped the wires, which triggered the cameras in sequence, each a split-second later than the last. While the purpose of these experiments was to freeze the horse’s motion at every point in its stride to determine once and for all if the horse’s hooves always contacted the ground, when the images were combined, the time that elapsed between each image also made it the first time lapse photography, albeit with multiple cameras.

Legend says Muybridge’s work for Stanford settled a $25,000 bet on the question of whether horses went completely airborne, but historians agree that this is probably a myth. What’s more certain is that Muybridge’s work, which continued, pioneered stop-motion cinematography and set a foundation for the invention of motion pictures.

Muybridge went on to photographic studies of the movements of other animals, and his work drew international attention from scientists, artists, and the earliest filmmakers. Over the next 50 years, others would contribute to the development of more practical means for taking and displaying the “moving” photographic images. Successive images shot by the same camera were an obvious improvement.

In truth, motion pictures are a form of time lapse photography, merely one using a very short lapse, with 24 or 30 images taken each second. The lapse varied more, in particular growing longer, in work by scientists, who were often interested less in capturing motion that was fast but motion that was slow — or which could only be seen through a microscope. It is a series of images taken over long lapses, rather than short lapses, that is most commonly considered time lapse photography today.

The early history of time lapse photography includes many innovative Europeans. Filmmaker Georges Méliès, perhaps best known now for his 1902 A Trip to the Moon, was the first to use time lapse photography in a feature film, his 1897 Careefour de L’Opera. French filmmakers Jean Comandon and the four brothers who founded the pioneering film production company Pathé Frères took time lapse microscopic images of microbes and other organisms of interest to biologists. Weather, landscape, and man-against-nature battles became notable subjects for time lapse photography in the films of German director Arnold Fanck in the 1920s.

An American again drove time lapse photography forward substantially in the next several decades. John Ott, who’d become interested in photography while still a student, worked as a banker by day but came home to experiment with his camera. Fascinated by the unfurling of apple blossoms and other flowers, Ott rigged his camera with a timer so that photos could be taken of the blooms at regular intervals even when he wasn’t there to do it. Photographing insect activity became another area of interest for him.

Ott eventually built a greenhouse full of plants, cameras, and automated motion control systems that allowed him to not only create time lapse photographs of his growing plants but also captured his array of cameras at work. He also added timed musical tracks to the results, making his plants appear to dance. His work became the subject of television programs in the 1950s, and in addition to writing several books, Ott produced sequences used by Walt Disney and other filmmakers and television producers throughout the latter part of the century.

Oxford Scientific Films in Britain is another source of time lapse footage seen by millions of people in the past fifty years. Founded in 1968, the Institute’s specialization in natural history has made it a leader in time lapse photography and equipment, including cameras tiny enough to photograph changes taking place in otherwise inaccessible places, such as inside the human body.

As photography equipment grew increasingly affordable and portable, many people began using time lapse photography to capture movements that are difficult or impossible to track over time with the human eye, including the motion of stars, the effects of a bullet, the process of rot, the evolutions of buildings over decades, and changes in tides, clouds, or crowds. Time lapse photography evolved into a cinematic language that could not only compress time but also be used to exaggerate or alter meaning or create meaningful juxtapositions. The 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio, was a notable milestone shot primarily using time lapse techniques that further raised the visibility of time lapse photography to the general public. Many more films, TV programs, and commercials have since used time lapse sequences, including much work by renowned British naturalist David Attenborough.

Today, digital cameras and computers make time lapse photography easier than ever. Cameras such as the Wingscapes BirdCam 2.0 and TimelapseCam 8.0 can be programmed to take photos over seconds, minutes, hours, days, or weeks and then automatically compile them into a smooth sequence that “speeds up” the images to display the progression of everything from a home improvement project to the change of seasons. The results appear everywhere from commercial broadcasting to YouTube. There’s even a film festival in New York dedicated to time lapse “time art.”

The next innovation in the history of time lapse photography — whether in equipment, subject matter, or presentation — remains to be discovered, but perhaps a creative Wingscapes customer will help make it happen.