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The meeting of Eadweard Muybridge and Leland Stanford led to moving pictures

Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge
Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge
Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The Inventor and the Tycoon by Edward Ball

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This is a study of the lives of photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) and railroad magnate Leland Stanford (1824-1893). Muybridge is perhaps best known for his series of still photographs of running horses, a precursor to moving pictures, and Stanford for founding Stanford University. He was also one of the “big four” businessmen who oversaw the completion the western leg of the First Transcontinental Railroad and served as governor of California from 1862-1863.

The book opens with a description of a January 1880 public display of Muybridge’s photographs, painted on glass plates and projected on walls inside Stanford’s great mansion atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. People had seen “magic lantern” demonstrations before, but this was different. It consisted of living animals and humans rather than drawings.

Stanford sponsored Muybridge’s work with the idea of answering a question: While a horse is galloping, is there a point when all four of its hooves are off the ground? The idea was referred to as “unsupported transit.”

Stanford owned stables near Palo Alto. Muybridge built a measured track there, refined a shutter mechanism for his use and ran horses drawing sulkies. Much of this he made up as he went along.

Author Edward Ball leans a bit to the sensationalistic, referring repeatedly in the first chapters to Eadweard Muybridge as a murderer. Muybridge was acquitted. The narrative is also repetitive at points. In describing the events leading up to the killing, Ball quotes from the trial transcripts. Later, in describing the trial, he quotes the same witnesses on the same events.

The book is an interesting read on the intersection of the lives of the two men. It also portrays frontier California in a riveting and illuminating yet generally even voice.