Book tells of movie invention

THE INVENTOR AND THE TYCOON: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures. By Edward Ball. Doubleday. 392 pages. $29.95.

On Jan. 16, 1880, railroad magnate and former Calif. Gov. Leland Stanford gathered a group of distinguished friends into his San Francisco home for a special event. As the guests watched in awe, delight and, possibly, a bit of fear, Stanford’s protege, photographer Edward Muybridge, displayed the first moving pictures. The crude presentation, projected in glaring, flickering light, was of a galloping, almost life-size horse.

According to author Edward Ball, winner of the National Book Award for his “Slaves in the Family,” only one newspaper described the night in Stanford’s mansion when the “primal DNA” of movies, television, video games and the “twitching images” of the Internet first was exposed to an audience. It was the beginning of what Ball calls the world’s “screenophilia,” our near obsession with pictures in motion.

Ball’s tale of how this obsession developed over 130 years weaves its way through his book in a particularly thought-provoking, often brilliantly quirky way. Indeed, the author is at his best when he takes side trips into, say, how 19th-century wheat farmers moved their crop, how immigrant Chinese workers lived or how railroad tracks were built over mountains. Unfortunately, this solid, highly entertaining reportage has been placed in a framework that seems flawed, often strained at times.

Ball takes on a tremendous amount of material. He moves — backward — through what amounts to biographies of Stanford and Muybridge, traces the evolution of motion pictures and, at some length, recounts the circumstances surrounding Muybridge’s murder of his wife’s lover (he was found not guilty). Handling the sheer weight of so much information would be daunting for any writer, but meshing the various strands into a cohesive whole and maintaining an effective pace and tone are even more difficult. Ball frequently seems to be struggling with the task.

For instance, the personal life of Stanford, a major figure in the history of 19th-century finance, must have been relatively easy to research, but the much more obscure Muybridge seems to have presented more of a challenge, reducing Ball to the use of phrases like, “might have been,” and “though there is no hard evidence for,” to fill in the gaps. This tends to bog down the narrative in places, and it stands in jarring contrast to the author’s crisp telling of Stanford’s story and the wonderfully detailed descriptions of Muybridge’s inventions and photographic techniques.

Neither Stanford nor Muybridge was the most attractive of men. Both were egotistical and ruthless. Yet they shared certain characteristics that make this a particularly American saga. Both were self-made men who took full advantage of the opportunities presented by a wide open capitalistic society. Both changed careers several times, and both felt compelled to move west.

Perhaps most importantly, both had an enormous faith in the power of gadgets to solve everyday problems, and much more. If, on that January night in 1880, Stanford and Muybridge could not comprehend that what they were doing someday would link “the world’s billions in a community of spectatorship,” they surely believed that only a lack of imagination could limit what might be accomplished by tinkering with a machine.

Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is an editor and writer based in Charleston.