Although he would not have considered himself as such at the time, Eugen Sandow is often considered the father of modern bodybuilding. It is fair to say that he set up the foundations for the sport within the boundaries of the physical culture movement during the Victorian age.
He was born Friedrich Wilhelm Muller in Konigsberg, Prussia (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1867, the son of a jeweler. According to his own account, he ran away from home and earned his keep by being a circus strongman, wrestler and artist’s model in Belgium.
He was plucked out of obscurity by artist E. Aubrey Hunt, who subsequently entered him into a strength competition at the Royal Aquarium Hall, London against the Mighty Samson. Sandow’s ensuing victory ensured him a three-month contract on the London music hall scene and he was so popular that his contract was soon extended.
Sandow’s show act consisted of the classic strongman feats such as card tearing, iron bending, snapping chains and supporting horses and a squadron of soldiers on his back. What stood him apart from others of his day was a posing routine that saw him mimic the poses of Greek and Roman statues. Such was his obsession that he took a tape measure to the statues so as to replicate the proportions on his own body through his own training routines.
Achieving rock star like status in Europe (women were known to swoon at the sight of him posing in a similar fashion to the effects of Beatlemania on young fans), Sandow toured North America and conquered it as well. Within seven years he was a truly international star. Some of his many famous friends included the famous writers George Bernard Shaw and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; superstars in their own right. It could be fair to say that Sandow enjoyed the fame that bodybuilding legend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, enjoys today.
After a decade of touring Sandow retired in London to setup the Institute of Physical Culture, the Victorian equivalent of the modern day gym. His entrepreneurial skill did not end there, he became a best selling author of multiple books on physical culture and a monthly periodical. He owned a large and successful corset company. He also invented various exercise apparatus, such as stretching rubber strands, spring grip dumbbells, and also organized the first ever “bodybuilding” competition in 1901.
Sandow died suddenly aged 58 of a stroke in 1925. By this time his fame had diminished and he was buried in an unmarked grave. He was largely forgotten by most people. His only claim to fame in the modern era is that the Mr. Olympia award was named after him; a faint echo of bodybuilding’s founding father.
There is little on film containing Sandow but here is a short film clip produced by the Thomas Edison Company in 1903