The Inventor and the Tycoon
Movies, money, and murder in the Gilded Age West.
Reviewed by Heller McAlpin for Barnes & Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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For biography lovers – those of us who can't get enough of the engaging and often instructive mix of happenstance, striving, conniving, satisfaction, and woe that factors into the lives of both the well known and unknown – dual biographies can add up to a double treat. Frequently about married couples, these twofers often focus on famous pairs like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whom Hazel Rowley chronicled in Tête-à-Tête, or relatives of the author, such as Vikram's Seth's great-aunt and -uncle in Two Lives, or Francine du Plessix Gray's parents in Them.
Edward Ball's The Inventor and the Tycoon is a different sort of dual biography. Like Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, it zeroes in on the unlikely confluence of two disparate men, a brief convergence that resulted in the creation of something with enduring value: in the case of Winchester's duo, the Oxford English Dictionary, and in Ball's, the early stages of motion picture technology.
Ball, best known for his National Book Award-winning history of his family's slave-owning past, Slaves in the Family, explores the unexpected collaboration between railroad tycoon Leland Stanford and renowned photographer Eadweard Muybridge in nineteenth-century California – a meeting that brought art, technology, and money together with far-reaching cultural impact. "The Inventor and the Tycoon" captures not just the improvised, unpredictable life trajectories of its strong-willed characters – but also the emergence of California onto the national stage and a period of unprecedented technological advancement in American history. Its themes of ambition, greed, and progress on the backs of others remain ever relevant.
Neither of Ball's subjects would win points for charm. Leland Stanford, the financial wheeler-dealer behind the western half of the transcontinental railroad, was unscrupulous in business and taciturn in person. Edward Muybridge, the eccentric, British-born photographer and inventor, was for a time as renowned for having killed his wife's lover as for his iconic landscapes of the American West. His early photographic work, many reproductions of which are included in Ball's book, include breathtaking views of Yosemite, extraordinary panoramas of the still-young and rapidly growing city of San Francisco, and what Ball declares was "some of the first ethnography in North America."