The Inventor and the Tycoon

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

The Inventor and the Tycoon By Edward Ball Knopf Doubleday 464 pp.

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."

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.

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.

This soirée took place, incredibly enough, not six years after Muybridge stood trial for his life for murder. In 1874, after learning that he was probably not the father of his baby boy, the enraged photographer stalked his young wife Flora's lover and shot him point-blank and without remorse in a Calistoga miners' lodge. This revenge killing, which Ball places at the physical and dramatic center of his book, led to instant notoriety and a sensational trial in Napa. One of the three lawyers who represented Muybridge, Wirt Pendegast, was a friend of Stanford's who had earned the tycoon's appreciation when, as a California senator, he had pushed laws in the Central Pacific railroad's favor. Ball vividly conveys Pendegast's brilliant defense strategy – essentially, temporary insanity – and eloquent summary argument before the all-male jury, eleven of whom were married, "which made them perhaps more likely to sympathize with Muybridge, the enraged husband."
Readers should be warned that "The Inventor and the Tycoon," like the early motion pictures it discusses, is a bit jerky in its execution – but it is well worth sticking with beyond its shaky start. Unsure where to begin, Ball unfortunately front-loads his book with lots of throat-clearing (both a foreword and a preface!) and repetitive explanations of how his unlikely duo, "[u]sing horses and cameras and speed…built a technology of vision," and introduced "the element of speed to vision." Rather than build to the meeting of his two subjects and Muybridge's notorious crime, he jumps in headfirst and then splashes around in time to right his narrative. Eschewing chronology and trying to heighten momentum (if not suspense), Ball intercuts his various strands cinematographically, but the strain of integrating two such loosely connected biographies shows. The splicing and editing, particularly in his constant interruptions of the riveting courtroom drama of Muybridge's murder trial, often feel forced and disjointed.

Yet despite these structural difficulties, Ball's generously illustrated, richly researched book offers no shortage of meaty material to chew over. In addition to the life stories of two noteworthy men, it provides an introduction to nineteenth-century California history – complete with its surprising political landscape (Stanford, although never popular, was briefly governor and later a state senator) and woeful record on human rights vis-à-vis the state's large population of Chinese and Mexican workers. In addition, the book offers a primer on the history of photographic technology from daguerrotypes to wet plates and celluloid. Ball's well-chosen illustrations lend eloquent support to his text; one especially interesting pair demonstrates the striking difference between Muybridge's 1875 photograph of a cemetery printed with and without the photographer's signature "cloud effect."

"The Inventor and the Tycoon" spools reels of topics meriting discussion, including parallels between our current gilded age of techno-billionaires and "the poisonously rich" of Stanford's era. Issues of unethical and often downright illegal financial maneuvers – "a classic two-sets-of-books accounting scheme," deliberate overbilling, and bilking the federal government out of vast sums -- sound uncomfortably familiar. In flagging Thomas Edison's penchant for peremptorily staking claims to others' "borrowed" ideas by filing "caveats," or announcements of research plans with the U.S. Patent Office, Ball's book also raises interesting questions about intellectual property and the fine line between sharing and poaching innovations. Add to all this the perennial conversation about whether Muybridge's act of murder really was justifiable – temporary insanity? a crime of passion? defense of marital rights? -- and you've got enough material to fuel several lively discussions.

Or make a movie.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books for, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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