The Inventor and the Tycoon is Edward Balls fifth book of nonfiction, continuing his run as a chronicler of U.S. history sliced thin, seasoned with anecdotes written in compelling narrative and served a bit breathlessly.
By STEVE WEINBERG
Special to The Star
This is Americana for readers who never much cared for history in high school and that is meant as praise for Ball, not criticism.
The inventor in the title is Edward Muybridge, a British immigrant to the United States who was an eccentric but talented photographer. Muybridge (he changed the spelling of his first and last names often, but I will use this form for this review) crossed paths with the tycoon of the title, Leland Stanford, who accumulated a gigantic fortune as a railroad builder and whose name is remembered today primarily because it graces Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
The two mens passions bumped together most during the 1870s. Stanford, after serving as governor of California and seeking outlets for his wealth, became fascinated with horses. He wanted to learn whether all four legs of horses left the ground simultaneously while galloping. Muybridge, because of his penchant for inventing forms of photography, thought he could figure out how to snap images of moving bodies that would provide Stanford the answer.
Eventually, Muybridge developed technology that served as the precursor of motion pictures. He did not receive as much credit as perhaps he should have because the most famous American inventor of all, Thomas Alva Edison, adapted the technology and grabbed the credit.
Muybridge, though not a household name in 2013, has been the subject of numerous books. So has Stanford. Perhaps Ball would have bypassed them as the focal point of a dual biography, but when he learned about the murder, he apparently could not resist. Muybridge committed the murder in 1874. The dead man was the lover of Muybridges wife. It was a crime of passion but definitely premeditated.
Muybridge admitted the murder without hesitation, proud of taking the life of the man who had cuckolded him. Calculating that a combination of California law and tradition would lead a jury to acquit him, Muybridge hired outstanding lawyers and went on trial. Indeed, the jury cleared him.
For the rest of his life, Muybridge carried around a slightly disreputable and romantic reputation. He was still in demand for his artistic skills.
Readers who keep up with publishing trends will quite likely recognize the popularity of the hybrid genre of Balls book. Perhaps the most successful current author in the same category as Ball is Erik Larson. His book The Devil in the White City is set in 1893 and seems to have attained the rank of contemporary classic.
The majority of Balls previous books have focused on the crucible of race in the United States, tending to read as deeply personal. Indeed, the book establishing Balls authorial success is Slaves in the Family his family as slave owners. The Inventor and the Tycoon does not ignore racial prejudice completely, but that matter is secondary to the Muybridge-Stanford biographical dance.
The Inventor and the Tycoon does not deserve the status of contemporary classic. There is way too much repetition, way too much facile foreshadowing and violations of chronology that sometimes work well but too often confuse more than move than story ahead.
Still, it is a fine book, exhibiting superb research and teaching history without inducing agony in readers.
Steve Weinberg is a biographer in Columbia.