On One Henry Pointer: A Brief History of the Foundation of the Internets- Cat Memes

Curators’ Corner

On One Henry Pointer: A Brief History of the Foundation of the Internets- Cat Memes

There is a theory which stipulates that cats are essentially the internet. There’s even a video about it:

The Internet Is Made of Cats

And there’s a decent argument for it. Cat memes fuel a lot of internet traffic.  Not as much as dogs apparently, as a Bit.ly analysis on share statistics actually put dogs just a head of cats in this regard, but still. Cats are, undeniably, a cultural cornerstone of western internet life. And it bares reason that cats would be so popular in social media and most any site devoted to lollygaggery (that’s a word now). They’re popular pets. People love them. Some people hate them, but a lot love them. However, what constitutes a cat meme?

Basically a cat picture does if it is cute and/or ridiculous in whatever proportions humor people who do not actually own the cat in the picture, en masse. Throw in some humorous text and BOOM. You have a cat meme on your paws. And not for nothing but, everyone loves cat memes. Even people who are indifferent to or simply don’t like cats. Case in point: me. I’m allergic to cats and find their passive aggressiveness personally offensive. But I’ll be damned if I don’t love a good cat meme.

You think this is funny and you know it.

But where did this all start? Who came up with cat memes?

One would think it’s hard to source something as ubiquitous and internet-old as a meme, especially a pretty specific one, but that’s assuming two things:

1.) nothing stays on the internet long enough to trace it, and

2.) the meme started on the internet

Well we all know the internet is practically eternal. So it’s not likely that the source of cat memes was lost like the Library of Alexandria. Unless the source of cat memes is actually ancient Egyptian…

I can has papyrus?

We have a decent amount of ancient Egyptian writing around to assess that cat memes weren’t ancient or Egyptian. And so if that’s not the case, where did cute cat photos with funny captions start off? Well, there was Usenet. Usenet was one of the earliest forms of the internet. It was implemented around 1980 and essentially was a bulletin system that kind of looked like the great grandfather of email and modern web forums. It wasn’t, but it kind of looked like it. Usenet had “newgroups” which were topic-based forums. One popular topic: cats. In the early 1990s people began posting photos of their cats. Some were cute. Some were funny. Some were both. You can consider that the relative birthplace of the cat (or any other kind of) meme. But, that depends on how you define a meme. Cats can be funny offline too, right? Anything can be. If you don’t consider networked computers to be a fundamental element of a meme, then where do you start? Well, I’d argue it starts with cat images. Particularly photos.

So... I can't has papyrus?

Cat memes are captured instances that rely on a certain amount of spontaneity for their affect. So, when was the first can meme shot?

Hold onto your butts for this: cat memes are probably at least around 140 years old.


The Surprisingly Cute and Obvious Tale of Henry Pointer

Henry Pointer was born during the brisk November of 1822 at Marcham, a village which was, at the time, part of Berkshire in England (it has since been redistricted under the jurisdiction of Oxfordshire). Henry was born to John and Elizabeth Pointer.

While a young man, Henry enlisted in the 1st Regiment of the Life Guards, a regiment charged with the task of protecting the lives of the English monarchs. Being that it was regulation for all recruits of the Life Guards to a.) be at least 5’ 10” and, b.) sport a moustache, it is reasonable to surmise, based on these points and dated photographic evidence, that Henry was a reasonably tall man and that he bore a luxurious crop above his lip.

Pictured: Luxurious facial hair

In 1849, during his tenure in the Guard, Henry married a painter by the name of Rosa Myra Drummond. He and his new bride took up residence in Regents Park, London after wedding, though the birth of two children prompted a relocation to Brighton in 1858. By then Henry had left the armed services and became a “Drill Master” at a local school. The roll was essentially that of a gym teacher, though the physical activities of drills were accompanied by the disciplined nature of the military (unrelatedly, this probably had something to do with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”).

In 1865 Henry switched careers entirely and established a photographic studio in Brighton. At the time, Brighton was a veritable hub of photo studios with at least thirty-four listed in the area in 1867, a fruit of the enormous popularity of carte-de-visite portraits. Developed in France in 1857, carte-de-visite portraits were small, inexpensive photo portraits, about 2.5 X 4.5 inches, mounted on card stock.

Birth of a Meme

In the late 1860s Henry began photographing animals, but by 1870 he began to focus primarily on his pet cats. At first he shot cats doing typical cat things: resting, sleeping in baskets, feeding on milk. That soon evolved into cats resting and sleeping in improbable places: in mixing bowls, on old shoes and water cans. That eventually bloomed into arrangements of cats striking human poses: roller skating, shooting photos, and riding tricycles. It didn’t take Henry long to figure out that in order to go next-level with these images, he needed to write captions. By 1872 he’d created over 100 of these early memes; a growing body of work which became known as “The Brighton Cats”.

“The Brighton Cats” proved to be both a critical and popular success. Henry’s work began to be exhibited in London and Dublin at places like The Photographic Society of Great Britain, of which he eventually became a member. This popularity extended all over Europe. His work was even recognized by Austrian photo historian, Josef Maria Eder.

His career lasted until 1889, at which point he passed away at the age of 66.

Granted, you have to account for the tempered nature of late nineteenth century English humor, but the elements are there, man. Henry Pointer invented the cat meme. And it happened around 1870. In a way this speaks to a fundamental truth about all people. Cats, in funny poses with funny captions, have what seems to be universal appeal. And as much as it appears as if we’ve just discovered that truth about humanity in the last 10 or 15 years, the evidence suggests we didn’t. Henry Pointer did almost a century and a half ago.