Leland Stanford appeared to have it all: As president of the Big Four (The Associates), who built the Western half of the transcontinental railroad, the tycoon became one of 19th century San Francisco’s most-influential entrepreneurs. He served as California’s eighth governor, and founded the university that bears his name.

“Newspapers were soaked with ink about the Stanfords’ outsized lives,” writes award-winning author Edward Ball in The Inventor and the Tycoon, which tells the story of Stanford’s most-bewildering partnership: his work with photographer Eadweard Muybridge.

Stanford had the time and money to cultivate an unusual obsession: He wanted to know if all four hooves of a running horse left the ground at the same time. Artists had long painted horses galloping in just that fashion, but who in the days before motion pictures could demonstrate the truth?

Stanford found an answer, thanks to the eccentric English immigrant he met in 1872. Muybridge, renowned for his Yosemite landscapes, doubted that he could capture the necessary images. But he was certainly willing to try.

Using 12 cameras, Muybridge took a series of photographs at Stanford’s Palo Alto horse farm, which showed an airborne galloping steed, its four feet suspended briefly above the earth. Some years later, Muybridge invented what is sometimes considered the first movie projector, a spinning device called a zoopraxiscope.

Despite his technical genius, Muybridge was a deeply troubled man. In 1874, he shot and killed his wife’s lover. The defense argued that Muybridge’s flirtatious young bride drove him to insanity. Others saw him as a cold-blooded murderer, shrouded in secrecy and protected by a powerful patron. Muybridge was never convicted, but his reputation was forever tarnished.

An artful shape-shifter, Muybridge frequently changed professions, style of dress, and even the spelling of his name. But Ball’s thoroughly researched biography parts the clouds of Muybridge’s past, and examines both his and Stanford’s vices and virtues through the lens of the times they lived in, revealing them as avatars of Gilded Age excess, sinister collaboration—and the kind of world-changing inventiveness to which we owe contemporary cinema.

This book review originally appeared High Country News.

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

By Edward Ball


464 pages, $29.95