Book review: 'The Inventor and the Tycoon,’ by Edward Ball

  • Article by: TIM BRADY SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: January 25, 2013 - 12:39 PM

The story of the murderer who helped invent motion pictures.

In January 1880, photographer and confessed murderer Edward Muybridge stood in the center of an ornate salon in railroad tycoon Leland Stanford’s San Francisco mansion and projected images of a trotting horse on a screen draped from a wall. None of Stanford’s Nob Hill guests had ever seen anything like it. No one had. For the first time anywhere, pictures had seemingly moved: a horse photographed trotting on Stanford’s farm in Palo Alto was trotting again in this parlor. “Nothing was wanting,” a journalist wrote later, “but the clatter of the hooves upon the turf and an occasional breath of steam from the nostrils to make the spectator believe that he had before him genuine flesh-and-blood.” Though almost everyone in San Francisco was aware of it, no mention was made in the article of the photographer’s homicidal past.

Edward Ball, author of the National Book Award-winning “Slaves in the Family,” tells this interesting tale of invention and mayhem in “The Inventor and the Tycoon.” Ball’s book pairs the stories of Muybridge, gifted photographer and one of the founders of motion pictures, and Stanford, creator of the Central Pacific Railroad and the university that still bears his name.

Muybridge was born with few prospects in a village outside of London. Called Teddy Muggeridge then, he first came to California as a young man in the wake of the Gold Rush. He sold books for a time, returned to London during the Civil War, then traveled to Paris, where he learned the rudiments of photography. Back in San Francisco in the mid-1860s, Muybridge (or Helios, as he was now calling himself) set up a successful photography studio. He met and married a woman about half his age, and eventually found a patron in railroad baron Stanford.

Stanford, a serious horseman with money to burn, had long been fascinated with a question that confounded other harness racing aficionados: Were all four horse hooves ever simultaneously airborne during a trot? He hired Muybridge to settle the matter. In the process, Muybridge invented stop-action photography and devised the system that would allow him to create the moving pictures he showed to the crowd at Stanford’s mansion a few years later.

Unfortunately, between his work for Stanford and photography trips up and down the West Coast, Muybridge seriously neglected his young wife, Flora, who sought love elsewhere. The tragedy that ensued turned out to be all hers and her lover’s.

“The Inventor and the Tycoon” is at its best describing the milieu of a frontier world where ordinary men like Leland Stanford could amass great fortunes, and where Edward Muybridge could find what genius he possessed (and evade justice in the process). Detailed and thoroughly researched, it strains only when making the intersection of their lives compelling.

  • THE INVENTOR AND THE TYCOON

    By: Edward Ball.

    Publisher: Doubleday, 447 pages, $29.95.

    Review: The author of the award-winning “Slaves in the Family” tells a fascinating story of invention and murder in old San Francisco.

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