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Originally published Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 5:31 AM

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‘The Inventor and the Tycoon’: the birth of moving pictures

Edward Ball’s true-life thriller, “The Inventor and the Tycoon,” tells the story of how wealthy mogul Leland Stanford and photographic wizard Edward Muybridge joined forces to create the moving picture, the technology that now dominates our image-flooded age.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Muybridge's work was instrumental in demonstrating that films were a practical... MORE

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

by Edward Ball

Doubleday, 447 pp., $29.95

Edward Muybridge and Leland Stanford could’ve been stars in a great Old West adventure film. As it is, they are the reason movies exist in the first place, according to Edward Ball’s sprawling and richly detailed new book, “The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures.”

The story recounts the unlikely friendship between Muybridge, the grizzled landscape photographer who gave us some of the earliest images of California’s stunning Sierra Nevada, and Stanford, the unimaginably wealthy railroad tycoon who was his patron in rowdy San Francisco back in the late 1800s.

This nonfiction book, which reads like a Hollywood-style thriller, is set mainly in the City by the Bay, with a raucous history of westward railroad expansion (with Stanford as lead) thrown in for added depth. Fans of both early photography and the history of the West will be rewarded by the story Ball weaves together.

The night is Jan. 16, 1880. Muybridge has photographed some of Stanford’s horses in Palo Alto and on this evening, in Stanford’s 50-room mansion on what is today Nob Hill, he shows what he’s captured on a projector screen to a group of invited guests who can’t believe their eyes: “A picture in motion of a galloping horse,” Ball writes.

Muybridge, not shy about self-promotion, staged a second, more-public presentation and charged 50 cents a ticket. People were amazed by what came out of his “photographic magic-lantern zoetrope,” as one reporter in attendance later put it.

This was the start of something big, says Ball (“Slaves in the Family,” “Peninsula of Lies”).

“The ‘screening’ in May 1880 was the public curtain raiser, if you like, of visual media,” Ball writes. “If we live in a sensory world where images orbit and engulf us, Muybridge opened the door to it. He handed us our distractions as a magician gives out illusions.”

It just so happens that the father of movies was the sort of killer we often see in films in this century. In 1874, he fatally shot an infamous swindler and womanizer named Harry Larkyns in a mining town outside the Bay Area. The killing became a national sensation in the papers. When Muybridge showed those horses galloping in Stanford’s mansion, everyone there knew the photographer’s back story.

It’s interesting to read that back in the late 1860s, only a few-dozen photographers were experimenting with “instantaneous photography,” capturing the motion of, say, a person sneezing or a crashing wave, in the stillness of a single frame. Before then, photographers often failed at it.

But Muybridge, who went by the name Helios at this stage in his life, managed the feat with a well-publicized picture of a waterfall in Yosemite Valley. Ball suggests that this is perhaps the beginning of Muybridge’s own fascination with the idea of “capturing time.”

Moving pictures were already something of a rage back then, though. Zoetropes were popular gadgets in the United States and Europe. Like a cartoon flipbook, drawings lined up inside a drumlike apparatus appeared to move as you spun the device.

Muybridge’s “zoopraxiscope” was leaps and bounds beyond that. His cameras captured multiple pictures per second. He’d then have an artist paint the images on a glass disk. The projections the audience saw were only a representation of his actual pictures, but his ability to capture and store real time, as Ball puts it, was a start.

As Ball makes clear, Muybridge wasn’t the only genius working out the complexities of captured time. He also takes us into the 1890s studio of Thomas Edison, who worked on his kinetograph movie camera and kinetoscope peep-show box.

But “movies, television, video games, the twitching images of the Internet user — Muybridge’s pictures contain the primal DNA of all of them,” Ball writes.

With Muybridge’s imagination and Leland’s money, the world came to life on a screen.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.

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