‘The Inventor and the Tycoon’ tells a story of greed and innovation

Categories: Chicago Tribune

February 23, 2013

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

The oligarchs of modern-day Wall Street have nothing on the rascally magnates of the late 19th century during the period of western expansion that brought passenger rail through the Sierra Madre and into the gold-plated hills of Northern California. After the gold rush of the mid-century came opportunities for small men to become big men who amassed a fortune in their lifetime and modernized the industrial age in the process.

That tidal shift is the backdrop of Edward Ball's fascinating "The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures," a beefy and rambunctious history that is both a Victorian-age saga and true crime mystery, complete with a court trial that suggests the current-day obsession with celebrities gone bad. This is also a tale of early cinema, the roots of which have nothing to do with storytelling, artistic vision or star power. Instead, the roots are the racetrack and the photography of horses to determine whether they achieve their trotting speed while maintaining a foot on the ground, or momentarily take flight and go airborne. As a prelude to the mechanized age, this book's big vision is true in scope to its characters and their operatic accomplishments.

The titled protagonists are Edward Muybridge (inventor) and Leland Stanford (tycoon), two men at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum, who both understood how showmanship was key to getting them where and what they wanted. In Stanford's case, it was as a California governor and also as the public face of the Central Pacific railroad, part of the first transcontinental railroad in North America. Both roles conveniently overlapped, which allowed Stanford to get government subsidies and force county governments to cash in for stock, both of which were acceptable because of the public's unquenchable thirst to get the railroad up and running, connecting the evolving West Coast boomtowns to the money and cultural capitals of the East.

A former grocer born with an innate skill for performance, Stanford is perfect for the role destiny fit him to play. This is a man who ordered portrait artists to rub unfavorable parties out of portraits and who showed off his newborn son by putting him on a large silver platter and unveiling him to guests by lifting the cover. The press nicknamed him "Octopus" for his corruptive reach, seen as harmful to farmers, factories and politicians. The Central Pacific did not appear out of nowhere but on the backs of thousands of meagerly paid Chinese laborers and through the greasing of state legislatures throughout the West. Stanford wrote legislation that bettered his interests and informed lawmakers when and how he wanted them introduced. At first cheered as an innovator, he soon became vilified.

"People had seen nothing like this kind of business before the trains, no capitalist with this kind of grip. The scale and intrusions of the operation exceeded those of the state government," Ball writes in what could be an Occupy tract in the throes of the 2012 election cycle.

Stanford's vanity made him attractive to Muybridge, a chameleon who rotated through many lives, starting in Kingston upon Thames, a tiny village outside London, and later New York City before ending up in California. He was a washout who decided he would try his hand at becoming a photographer who preferred taking photos of large vistas and the antiquities of the rich. Stanford fit the bill, and soon Muybridge was employed as the tycoon's personal photographer, tasked with documenting the more than 50 rooms of Stanford's home, as well as many other prized possessions.

Ball focuses on Muybridge's habit of changing his name upon each new place he landed (his first name often is seen spelled Eadweard), suggesting it was learned behavior to cope with the early deaths of his father, uncle and brother. If he "took a message from all these deaths, it might have been to make his life more available to self-styling, to improvisation," he writes.

That Muybridge found himself under the patronage of Stanford is a matter of fate but also personal poise: Ball portrays Muybridge as enigmatic to most around him, including his young wife, who takes a lover during his many absences and later gives birth to a son who is not his. She does little to hide the affair, which eventually backfires: Muybridge shoots the lover, and moments later, helps in transporting him to the hospital while freely admitting the deed. A jury later acquits him of murder on the grounds that it was justified. The child is sent to an orphanage and his wife soon dies of influenza. In one of the more chilling passages, Ball writes: "A murder victim, a dead wife, an abandoned son. He purchased a little freedom at high cost. And now the way forward, as far as Muybridge could see, looked clear."

Ball wrestles as much as he can get out of the murder and subsequent trial, and indeed this book seems to want to dwell in a similar sinister underbelly as Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City." While both works feature the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago — the main backdrop of "Devil" and an ending coda in "Inventor" — the violence here is brief and, judging from what came later, inconsequential.

To this day, Muybridge's name is linked to early cinema history for the work he embarked on three years after the trial: Upon Stanford's request to determine the physics of a horse's gait, Muybridge invents the (delightfully named) zoopraxiscope, considered a precursor to the motion picture projector. With Stanford funding almost $1 million in today's currency, Muybridge develops the device through assembling two-dozen cameras connected to a trip wire; the silhouettes are copied onto a disc that gave public audiences their first viewing of moving pictures.

By the time the experiment was finished, the two men had a falling-out that left them bitter adversaries, Thomas Edison ended up borrowing elements of Muybridge's device to cement his role as a pioneer in film, and the Gilded Age started to rust. Muybridge had convinced a new patron, the University of Pennsylvania, to fund his photography, and soon he moved from racehorses to nudes — not just of young women and men poised in flirtatious, sometimes sexual poses, but also himself, curiously swinging a pickax while in the buff. That an invention that changed the way people viewed the world would so soon be used for perverse enjoyment reveals not only the mind of the man who designed it, but also the culture that would soon put it to good use.

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