The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures Edward Ball 2013 464 pages
The inventor and the Tycoon is an interesting book because it has so much to tell. That also might be a weakness because there is so much.
The story is about Eadweard Muybridge’s and Leland Stanford’s backgrounds and careers. It is about the transcontinental railroad. It is about Muybridge’s investigation into photography and motion. It is about early motion picture history. It is about Muybridge’s murder of his wife’s lover, the trial, and his acquittal. There are also small stories such as the background of Flora Muybridge’s lover. That’s a lot. Any one of those topics could be a book and is. Edward Ball, the author, covers all that extensively (his footnotes and bibliography are extensive). To put it all together Ball goes back and forth in time so the book is mostly not a linear progression.
The theme of the book is that together, Stanford and Muybridge “married the camera to the railroad and became the inventor of moving pictures.” That’s a bit overdrawn but you get the point.
Muybridge was an interesting and maybe weird guy. He did fit the age of wonder (see at least the June, ’16 Heirloom for that theme) that was the 19th Century. He was an inventor and he advanced technology. He “captured time and played it back.” In inventing ways to photograph motion, study motion, and develop primitive moving pictures and in his landscape photography Muybridge was brilliant. He was also a bit strange especially in that he changed the spelling of name a few times. He was enigmatic and apparently not so good at interpersonal relationships. He was also a murderer.
The name is the first thing. Mr. Muybridge started life as Muggeridge but changed his name to Muybridge, Muygridge, Helios, and Eduardo Santiago at various times. He also varied the spelling of Edward. He started adulthood in England selling books and art. He was an inventor in his 30’s inventing the hand crank washing machine which was a failure. He went into business later and then mining but never found success until he found photography. By age 49 he was in San Francisco and the best known photographer. As a landscape photographer, he apparently didn’t like photographing people, he popularized Yosemite. Muybridge lived there for five months in 1867 and Ball posits that American landscape photography began at Yosemite with Muybridge. It should be noted that Carleton Watkins had been there the year before photographing the landscape (see December, ’16 Heirloom Carleton Watkins The Complete Mammoth Photographs).
At age 44 in 1874, two years after marrying Flora Downs who was 23 when she married, he took a carriage to St. Helena and shot his wife’s lover. Muybridge and his wife were completely mismatched and so when he was off traveling to photograph Flora was meeting Harry Larkyns, “the prince of confidence men.” Murder is not normal behavior of course but as a murderer Muybridge wasn’t even what one would consider a normal murderer. He was jealous and had someone drive him in a carriage 75 miles north of San Francisco to St. Helena. There he found Larkyns and shot him in the chest. To the others in the building he apologized for the disturbance.
There is a lot of detail in the book about the murder and subsequent trial.
The book is full of information and tells many stories. There are lots of old Muybridge photographs and series of motion. There are historical photographs of the beginning of the motion pictures industry. Within all the information there are some obvious inaccuracies that leave the reader wondering if everything else is true. For example Ball says that St. Helena is 75 miles east of San Francisco. It’s not east; it’s north. He says that Napa Valley lies between “two courses of the Sierra Nevada Range.” There are not “two courses of the Sierra Nevada Range” and that makes one wonder what sources Mr. Ball was consulting. The time frame for Tunnel 6 on Donner Summit is wrong too.
Then too, there are some asides that just don’t need to be in the book. There was no reason to be speculating about Muybridge’s sex life. Since Ball didn’t know anything about it and said that, it doesn’t advance the narrative.
That brings up another weakness. There are lots of facts in the book given that there are so many stories to tell. Eadweard Muybridge’s life, though, has a lot of holes in it. Ball doesn’t want to leave the holes though, so he speculates to fill them with suppositions that are unsupported. There are lots of examples: “may have turned Ted [Eadweard] in a way to cause him to withdraw,” it might have made him even more irregular or mischievous, Ted may have looked up to his older brother, or we can “speculate about what prompted” change. There are lots of “may’s”, “He might haves,” “It may have been that”, “It is possible to guess,”, “we can imagine,” ”although he never mentioned it he may have had a gun”, or “this might conjecture.” Leaving the holes in Muybridge’s life and focusing where there are no holes such as Leland Stanford’s life or the early film industry, there are no speculations and lots of verifiable facts.
Then there is silliness. According to the author “Muggeridge” rhymes with “bugger” and that’s why Muybridge might have changed his name. Another good one, “…did Justice Stanford operate a bordello.” It’s unnecessary speculation unless there is proof.
Given that there is such a wealth of stories and attendant information there is no reason for all the suppositions. The narrative could have been tightened a lot without the guessing and tightened even more by leaving out excess detail.
That said, there is a lot of detail about Muybridge’s work speeding up photography and leading to projecting motion in very short moving pictures. Eventually that would open whole new fields of entertainment. So whereas most people who know of Muybridge know about the bet he won for Leland Stanford, Muybridge was much more but he was also a bit weird which is maybe what some genius requires.
If you want to page through more than a thousand Muybridge photographs of Yosemite, Donner Summit, Lake Tahoe, the railroad, San Francisco, etc. go to http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf6t1nb6w7/ The click on “online items available” which is in red small print.