The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures

Now here’s a compelling historical drama that—if it weren’t completely true—could pass for a intriguing crime novel.

The Inventor and the Tycoon (by Edward Ball, the National Book Award-winning author of Slaves in the Family) chronicles the partnership between a murderer who invented the movies and the robber baron who built the railroads.

The brilliant Eadweard (yes, the spelling is correct) Muybridge invented stop-motion photography about 130 years ago, anticipating and clearing the path for motion pictures—the movies.

Muybridge was the first to capture what we see and play it back for an audience (which gave birth to all manner of visual media and screen entertainment).

Yet this artist and inventor was also a murderer.

Muybridge killed coolly and meticulously, and his trial was one of the early instances of what we now know as the “media sensation.”

This character’s patron was railroad tycoon (and former California governor) Leland Stanford, who was obsessed with whether or not all four hooves of a horse actually left the ground at the same time in mid-gallop. So Stanford tapped Muybridge and his camera to answer that question.

And between them, the murderer and the railroad mogul launched the age of visual media.

Check out this video trailer for the book:

The following excerpt describes the partnership of Muybridge and Stanford and how they upped the ante through settling the “horse’s gallop” question:

The night promised a pageant of some kind, but two men already radiated something of the theater. Leland Stanford and Edward Muybridge were the best-known men at the party—Stanford for his money, Muybridge for his pictures (as well as the other thing), and together they inspired most of the hushed chatter. They had known each other for almost ten years and had spent a lot of that time talking and wondering about a single subject: the gait of horses. A narrow topic, yes, but one on the mind of many in the year 1880. Everyone knew that Stanford was horse-mad, and that he and Muybridge had formed a bond over horses. It was Stanford’s belief that during a gallop, horses at some point in their stride lift all four hooves off the ground, that in effect, they become airborne. No one knew, really—the legs of a horse moved too fast to tell with the eye. Stanford had asked Muybridge to solve his problem, to prove or disprove his hypothesis, which horse people referred to as the theory of “unsupported transit.”

Some of the talk that Stanford aroused would not have flattered him. At least some of the guests at the party, perhaps the politicians and the more middle-class group, inevitably regarded their hosts with ambivalence—envy would not be too strong a word, and maybe a touch of fear. Almost twenty years before, Leland Stanford and several others had founded the Central Pacific Railroad, with Stanford in the role of company president. The firm, using big government subsidies, and the sweat of perhaps twenty thousand Chinese immigrants, had built the western half of the transcontinental line, the 850-mile track over the Sierra Mountains that linked California to the eastern states. In the early years of the Central Pacific, Stanford had been an object of fealty. Newspaper accounts painted him as a great benefactor of California: he brought work and wealth and even glory to the West, his admirers said, justifying the stage name of California, the Golden State.

Set in California during the great American West’s frontier decades, The Tycoon and the Inventor interweaves Muybridge’s quest to unlock the secrets of motion through photography, an obsessive murder plot, and the peculiar partnership of an eccentric inventor and driven entrepreneur.