The Inventor and the Tycoon, Reviewed by Alexander Smith

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In The Inventor and the Tycoon, Edward Ball adopts a microhistorical approach to tell the stories of two profoundly different men – Leland Stanford, a cantankerous, incredibly wealthy railroad tycoon, and Edward Muybridge, a wild, obsessively brilliant artist and inventor. The strange and oftentimes perplexing relationship between these two profoundly different men constitutes the bulk of the material for this surprisingly satisfying and impressively researched work of popular history. Although many professional historians may dismiss The Inventor and the Tycoon as little more than entertainment directed at a popular audience, the book nevertheless raises a number of important questions about the kinds of individuals we should focus on, as academic historians, when carrying out microhistorical inquiries. Mr. Ball, like many historians before him, focuses his attention on the lives of individuals who cannot be considered ‘normal’ in any sense of the word. Does this narrow focus on atypical, anomalous cases vitiate our ability to derive accurate conclusions about the historical and social context in which those individuals lived? Although Ball’s book does not provide any definite answers to the problems faced by those practicing microhistory, the very fact that it raises these issues – and that it does so within an engrossing, vividly detailed and surprisingly immersive narrative – makes The Inventor and the Tycoon worthy of attention and admiration from amateurs and professionals alike.

Throughout The Inventor and the Tycoon, Mr. Ball attempts to establish a connection between the strange working relationship of Muybridge and Stanford with the establishment of the “modern visual media landscape.” However before Ball can present his case, he begins his narrative by introducing us to each man separately. Leland Stanford, a man of humble origins born into a modest farming family in upstate New York, came West to California, like many before and after him, hoping to strike it rich. Establishing himself first as a grocer in Sacramento, Stanford would eventually co-found the California Pacific Railroad Company and become one of the richest, most powerful men in Gilded Age America. Stanford’s life – full of success and conquest – stands in stark opposition to the troubled life of his business partner, Edward Muybridge. As an immigrant to America, Muybridge was met with a series of professional failures. As a middle-aged man with mounting debts and rapidly diminishing prospects, Muybridge made an incredibly risky move, a move which, according to Ball, would make an indelible impact on the American media landscape forever: he decided to become an artist. As one of the pioneers of landscape photography, Muybridge managed to secure highly lucrative contracts from the U.S. Government to photograph the vast swaths of land that lay between the Utah desserts and the sunny coast of California. Incredibly, Muybridge’s photographs were being purchased faster than he could produce them, and before long, he had become one of the premiere names in his field.

By the time Muybridge began working as a personal photographer for Stanford, he had gained a measure of fame – not only because of his artistic skills, but also because he had shot and killed a man whom he claimed had “seduced” his young wife. Muybridge was eventually acquitted when a jury concluded that his action had been ‘justifiable’ based upon the young lady’s supposed ‘indiscretion.’ In an attempt to refocus his professional career, Muybridge was tasked with using his photographic tools to determine whether or not Stanford’s racehorses were ever completely airborne while they trotted. With the financial aid and patronage of Stanford, Muybridge would eventually develop the Zoopraxoscope, a kind of proto-film projector that would eventually inspire the pioneers of cinema and usher in the age of the moving image.

Directing his narrative at a popular audience, Ball creates a vivid, seductive landscape out of Gilded Age San Francisco. Ball presents a lively, thriving city where the possibility of striking it rich always exists and if one fails, one can always recreate oneself into something, or someone, completely new. Although it makes for compelling reading, Ball’s narrative never seems to slow down and find time for analysis and reflection. Because The Inventor and The Tycoon is after all a work of popular history, this is wholly acceptable, however, this lack of analysis ultimately undermines his attempt to connect the relationship between Muybridge and Stanford with the larger historical context in which it took place.

Although Ball leaves us with a clear and lasting impression of the two men, their strange working relationship and the technology which emerged out of their partnership, when we reach the end of The Inventor and the Tycoon, it is much less clear where their contribution stands in the broader context of the history of cinema, and also, in the history of California during the Gilded Age. Furthermore, although there is little doubt that Muybridge and Stanford led fascinating lives, it is unclear exactly how we are to extrapolate from their fascinating biographies to arrive at meaningful conclusions about the world in which they lived. The lives of Muybridge and Stanford cannot be considered ordinary in any sense, and although their exploits make for captivating reading, one feels compelled to ask – should we even consider The Inventor and the Tycoon a work of history? Perhaps biography, or in this unusual case, a dual biography, would be a more appropriate title for what Mr. Ball is doing in The Inventor and the Tycoon.

Classificatory difficulties such as these highlight a particularly vexing problem facing academic historians, particularly those working in the field of microhistory: how can we extrapolate from a single individual or event to arrive at accurate conclusions about the historical or social context in which that individual lived or that event took place? What if the individual subject of the microhistorical analysis is simply an outlier or an oddity – can this lead to an inaccurate or ahistorical account? If we are unable to ‘connect’ the individual’s story to its broader historical context, does microhistory simply become a glorified form of biography? While The Inventor and The Tycoon bears almost all of the hallmarks of a microhistory, it is, at the end of the day, a work of pop-history and is therefore freed from the burden of answering such troublesome questions. Although Ball ultimately fails to satisfactorily ‘connect’ the biographies of Stanford and Muybridge with the broader historical picture of their era, The Inventor and the Tycoon nevertheless maintains the kind of dense, unrelenting investigatory energy seen in the very best works of microhistory.

Methodologically, Ball has taken a surprisingly judicious approach when it comes to analyzing and interpreting his sources. Unfortunately, one cannot say the same when it comes to the questionable connection he asserts between Muybridge’s invention – the Zoopraxoscope – and the establishment of the “modern visual media landscape.” If one familiarizes oneself with the history of cinema, it becomes immediately clear that Muybridge’s Zoopraxoscope was one of many devices, most of which served the very same purpose, which emerged in the final decades of the 19th century (the Zoetrope being the most famous of these devices, had existed for centuries before Muybridge’s invention was presented to the world). This is not to say that Muybridge’s invention was insignificant or that Ball’s account is inaccurate, rather, these facts simply show that the history of the moving image is much more complex and messy than The Inventor and the Tycoon would lead one to believe.

While Ball’s proposed connection between Muybridge’s Zoopraxoscope and the creation of cinematography may ultimately be untenable, it is clear that with the invention of the moving image, the American media landscape was irrevocably changed. Through newsreels, documentaries, propaganda films and Hollywood’s major motion pictures, many Americans gained access to vast swaths of information about the exotic, complex and sometimes frightening world which surrounded them. Without the contributions of Edward Muybridge and his wealthy patron, it seems likely that the creation of cinematography would have been delayed at least 20 years. Although this conclusion is far less exciting and salable than Ball’s, it seems wholly inaccurate to attribute the phenomenon of moving pictures to the strange relationship between Muybridge and Stanford. In the final chapter, Ball himself vaguely acknowledges the tenuousness of this claim and he instead proposes an alternate, much more satisfying relationship between the subjects of his book and the development of cinematography and the modern media. Ball suggests that the relationship between Muybridge and Stanford acts as a kind of precursor to, or microcosm of, the combination of forces (artistic and financial) that would eventually come together in order to shape the future American media landscape. Muybridge possessed the obsessive, innovative artistic capabilities and Stanford possessed the practical business knowledge and cold hard cash to transform Muybridge’s artistic ideas into a viable product available to the masses. Ultimately, Ball seems to concede that the connection between Muybridge and Stanford’s work and the creation of the modern media is more symbolic than it is causal.

Perhaps the limitations of the pop-history genre (namely that the content must be salable to a general audience) have forced Ball to make sensationalized historical connections that he cannot substantiate. The Inventor and the Tycoon leaves one with the distinct impression that he has been misled, but that he has been misled in the most entertaining, engrossing way possible. The content of the lives of Muybridge and Stanford are so fascinating and salacious that The Inventor and the Tycoon ultimately make up for its analytic deficiencies by presenting the reader with a genuinely compelling, efficiently written and vividly detailed historical narrative. Although Ball’s book will not leave you a particularly nuanced understanding of the Gilded Age, the social forces which brought these two men together or the long-term impact their relationship had, The Inventor and the Tycoon, like the images created by Muybridge’s Zoopraxoscope, creates a historical picture well worth looking at.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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