Monday, August 05, 2013

The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures by Edward Ball

At the heart of this complicated story was a simple question. When horses ran, did they always have at least one foot on the ground, or were there points at which horses were airborne? Former governor of California Leland Stanford was certain that he saw all of his racehorses' feet off the ground at points in their races. Fellow horse owners disagreed. Stanford was certain and wanted proof, so he turned to a photographer who was in his hire and demanded evidence. Edward Muybridge initially said that he could not produce such a photo, but Stanford persisted, and in 1872 at Standford's expense, Muybridge built an array of cameras with trip wires at the former governor's stables in Palo Alto. On glass plates covered with a special fast emulsion that he concocted Muybridge caught the desired images. More than a bet was settled. Putting the series of photos together in a projector that he invented, using tricks learned from magic lantern shows, Muybridge started the motion picture industry.

How Stanford and Muybridge came to California, how Stanford helped Muybridge beat a murder accusation, and what became of them afterwards is the subject of Edward Ball's fascinating dual biography The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures. I remembered the author from his excellent books Slaves in the Family and The Sweet Hell Inside. As he did in those books, Ball brings the world of the 19th century into sharp focus in his latest book.

Ball also shows how some men reinvent themselves in pursuit of dreams. Muybridge is an almost perfect example for a discussion of ever changing characters. He was born Edward James Muggeridge in England in 1830. By the time of his death in 1904, he had also been known as Edward Muygridge, Eduardo Santiago Muybridge, Helios, and finally Eadweard Muybridge. He had lived in London, New York, outside Milwaukee, Paris, Guatemala, and San Francisco, and had been a bookseller, banker, photographer, and inventor. Stanton had been a farmer, grocer, governor, and railroad tycoon, and is a prime example of a powerful man who never finds happiness. He is now most remembered for establishing Stanford University as a memorial to his son.

Readers will go many places and through much of the 19th century in The Inventor and the Tycoon. It is a trip worth taking.

Ball, Edward. The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures. Doubleday, 2013. 447p. ISBN 9780385525756.

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