'The Inventor and the Tycoon' review: Edward Ball's odd-couple story rich in history, metaphors

"The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age

"The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures" by Edward Ball (Doubleday, January 2013) (Credit: Handout)

THE INVENTOR AND THE TYCOON: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures, by Edward Ball. Doubleday, 447 pp., $29.95

They were an odd pair. One was a bearded, knockabout, bohemian genius of photography named Eadweard Muybridge. The other was Leland Stanford -- founder of the eponymous university, self-made millionaire, California governor and railroad tycoon whose ingenuity (and greed) transformed Gilded Age America. They were both fascinated with speed -- and stopping time. Together, they collaborated on a project, one that would lead the way to motion pictures.

With Stanford's backing, the obsessive Muybridge took a series of pictures of a horse in motion, which he then assembled and played back on a primitive projector. From a mere two seconds of footage Muybridge crafted in the late 1870s, one can trace the jagged evolution of movies. For author Edward Ball, winner of the National Book Award for "Slaves in the Family," Muybridge's projections were the beginnings of the media culture that holds us in thrall today. "Movies, television, video games, the twitching images of the Internet user -- Muybridge's pictures contain the primal DNA of all of them," he writes in the often fascinating if mannered "The Inventor and the Tycoon."

Stanford and Muybridge were different, yes, but they were both denizens of the West, and their shared creed was self-invention. Stanford was a lawyer who left the East and set up as a grocer in Sacramento before building the Central Pacific Railroad. The shape-shifting Muybridge was an Englishman, a onetime book peddler and wanderer who moved to San Francisco in 1866 and worked as a photographer. His stunning images of Yosemite shaped the very way we see the American West.

He was also a murderer.

In 1874, Muybridge shot and killed a man he claimed was his wife's lover. The trial was a sensation, and Ball devotes several exhaustive sections to it and its aftermath. (The outcome of the trial may surprise you.) Like his subjects, Ball is an obsessive -- he is crazy for the details. News of the trial, he writes, went "down the wires by telegraph, the story ricocheting around America not unlike the trains." The way Ball intricately binds these technological phenomena -- railroads, the telegraph and moving pictures -- into the controlling metaphors of his book is intellectually rich, if demanding.

The charge of murder did not dent Muybridge in the eyes of Stanford. The tycoon was determined to know if a horse's hooves all left the ground during a full gallop. He turned to Muybridge to find out. If Muybridge arguably invented the movies, he was all but forgotten by 1900. Others -- the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison -- improved on (some say stole) Muybridge's designs. In the end, Muybridge's life took on the outlines of an old photograph, its details yellowed and faded.

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