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The Inventor and the Tycoon

Movies, money, and murder in the Gilded Age West.

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Muybridge was an itinerant loner who reinvented himself multiple times, down to the very spelling of his name, which mutated over the years from Edward Muggeridge to Eadweard Muybridge, with several stops in between. Although he did his most important work as "Edward Muybridge" and ended up as the unpronounceable "Eadweard," Ball has chosen to use all of the variations, "attaching each to the time in his life that he assumed it." A more difficult challenge in writing about Muybridge is that the man left so few traces beyond his photographs. Ball meets this by filling in the gaps with conjectures and suppositions supported by circumstantial evidence. The result is a text filled with more "would haves" and "might haves" than you usually see in biographies.

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Yet as Ball reminds us repeatedly, both men left lasting legacies. Stanford, "the West's most famous symbol of greed," who was often referred to derisively as the Octopus for the way he engulfed smaller companies, was in large part responsible for the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad. He amassed an astounding fortune, but, lacking an heir and a raison d'être after his only son's death at fifteen, he changed his will and redirected his wealth toward the founding and endowment of the university in Palo Alto that bears his name. As for Muybridge, Ball makes the claim that he "was arguably the inventor of moving pictures"--although he does acknowledge the contributions of Thomas Edison, Étienne-Jules Marey, Louis and Auguste Lumière, and Georges Méliès, among others.

Stanford first hired Muybridge in 1872 to document his opulent Gilded Age mansions – "the rooms like tombs full of money" – first in Sacramento and later in San Francisco on what came to be known as Nob Hill. (The San Francisco house, built in 1876, collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, rendering Muybridge's photographic record even more valuable.) While their association never developed into true friendship, it broadened for a few years into a respectful patron-artist relationship fueled by Stanford's money and their shared interest in capturing time and motion on film.

Stanford was passionate about gadgets, machines, automatons, and, especially, horses – which, Ball notes, were "becoming objects of nostalgia and decoration" in the wake of the newly completed cross-country railroad. He was obsessed with the question of whether the hooves of his beloved horses actually all left the ground at the same time during a trot or gallop, a phenomenon known as "unsupported transit." It was a riddle that Muybridge's experiments in stop-motion photography helped solve: He caught the hooves suspended in midair. These elaborate experiments at the tycoon's Palo Alto Stock Farm eventually led to Muybridge's creation of the first moving picture projector, which he infelicitously called the zoopraxiscope. He unveiled his invention in the showy Pompeian Room of Stanford's San Francisco mansion in 1880, creating a sensation with his "Horse in Motion" photographs.

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