The Speed of Light in the Golden West

By Michael KammenNovember 3, 2013

The Inventor and the Tycoon by Edward Ball

DURING THE JAZZ AGE Miguel Covarrubias, a clever Mexican-born artist, created a sensation with his “Impossible Interviews” for Vanity Fair. They pictured celebrities and villains of the day in utterly unexpected, indeed highly improbable relationships. His caricatures paired the likes of Sigmund Freud with sultry Hollywood star Jean Harlow, Josef Stalin with John D. Rockefeller, and Sally Rand with Martha Graham. These imagined colloquies appeared early in the 1930s and generated endless chatter and fun. Readers felt moved to imagine their own unlikely twosomes, providing the grim 1930s with an amusing parlor game. 

A mismatched odd-couple that Covarrubias could have envisioned from the later 19th century, and that readers would have enjoyed, provide the principals for Edward Ball’s recent book, The Inventor and the Tycoon, a lively work by the award-winning author of Slaves in the Family (1998). It builds on thorough newspaper and archival research as well as a major exhibition, launched in 2010 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, titled Helios: Eadweard Muybridge in a Time of Change (subsequently seen at the Tate Britain museum in London). It’s the most fully realized retrospective ever devoted to a highly eccentric but revolutionary pioneer in the world of photography — a pioneer with a tumultuous and trying past. He underwent several sorts of trials, including first-degree murder and acquittal in 1875.


Muybridge is not yet a household name, but given Rebecca Solnit’s excellent study (2003) along with the rich catalog for that art show, and now this suspenseful book, that might happen. (The moniker is pronounced Moy-bridge, by the way.) His weird given name was never actually “given.” Born Edward Muggeridge, he changed it four times over a span of decades, including the phase following 1867 when he advertised himself (on his wagon) simply as Helios to appropriate the word for the sun personified in Greek mythology, and then lived his late years of acclaim as Eadweard in order to appropriate the Old English spelling of a 10th-century king who ruled from Kingston-on-Thames where Edward, once Ted as a teen, was born in 1830. Ball identifies his man in each phase of his life by the name he bore at the time, but henceforth, for our purposes, he will simply be Edward Muybridge. It’s less complicated and distracting that way.

Why Helios? Because the blazing California sun facilitated his astonishing breakthrough: capturing and showing movement in split-second time, ultimately 1/1000th of a second. Maximizing days of intense light became one key to his technical breakthroughs in the 1870s and success with wet and then dry-plate techniques for immediate, on-site development.

The tycoon in this case is ambitious and fabulously rich Leland Stanford, elected Governor of California in 1861 at the remarkable age of 36 (never having held any elected office before), and later a US senator. But most important, he was one of the four founders and financiers of the first transcontinental railroad, the Central Pacific (completed at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869), and eponymous founder of Stanford University in 1894.

His vast wealth brought him, among other material things, a fascination with race horses — trotters to be specific — and more particularly with the question of whether a running horse ever had all four hooves elevated and off the ground. No one knew, and who could tell? It simply happened too fast — the speed of a blink, or even less. He built his stables and an oval on his landed estate south of San Francisco. But experiments began on a Sacramento racetrack in 1872.

Muybridge had immigrated to the United States in 1851 at the age of 21, and eventually landed in the Bay Area four years later, selling books and encyclopedias by subscription. (Mark Twain’s books were sold the same way.) After pursuing varied careers unsuccessfully in the US, he returned home and then, visiting Paris in 1862, became intrigued by the young art of photography, tried his hand, and established himself back in San Francisco with a calling. He soon achieved local notoriety for his spectacular pictures of Yosemite in 1867, when and where his images proved useful to the landscape artist Albert Bierstadt and the geologist Clarence King. He achieved added success the next year in Alaska after Secretary of State William Seward achieved his so-called “folly” purchase from Russia. Edward could make fine portraits and did, but his favored genre initially became sensational large landscapes packaged in two ways: as bound volumes and in boxed sets.

Because Leland Stanford admired Muybridge’s immense landscape views, he hired him in 1872 to photograph his impressive home in Sacramento. It served as well as the governor’s mansion. In 1875 when the tycoon (no longer governor) decided to relocate to San Francisco, he built a spectacular 50-room home on what came to be known as Nob Hill (because the nabobs lived there). He engaged Muybridge once again to take extensive pictures of the construction and individually lavish parlors.

He also financed the image-maker’s efforts to devise a way to create stop-motion images that would solve the riddle that initially intrigued the tycoon, and that required seven years of experimentation and construction of a lengthy camera shed and experimental track at the Stanford farm in Palo Alto. Key components in the evolving process: chemical ingenuity and the astonishing use of electricity to trip the cameras as horses broke a wire stretched across the racetrack.

But not so fast. There was a time-out, so to speak, in 1874–75 when Muybridge, by then married to a fetching young woman half his age, traveled extensively for months on end to pursue his craft, and was cuckolded by a seductive adventurer, likely Scottish, working in San Francisco as a critic reviewing operas and theatrical performances. Harry Larkyns was every bit as dapper and conversationally slick as Muybridge was laconic, unkempt, and self-absorbed. After Muybridge pieced together a few clues and discovered through his wife’s maid that he had not fathered their child, he followed the seducer to the Napa Valley and killed him with a single shot to the heart.

Following his on-the-spot arrest and three-month incarceration, a 12-man jury acquitted Muybridge of first-degree murder on grounds of insanity (not entirely clear) but mainly because of his wife’s adultery — not an unusual outcome in a “frontier” environment at the time — and swiftly fled to Central America to take pictures of coffee plantations, an assignment apparently arranged by Stanford, by then a friend and a patron.

A highly unusual bond had developed between the two men — odd because Stanford was as self-aggrandizing, rich, and proud as Edward was laconic, shabbily attired, and financially needy — yet vain in his own fashion as witnessed by the regal names he acquired. He had, however, created a sensation with his dazzling, oversized images — especially his 11 huge panoramic views of the city taken from the height of Nob Hill — and Stanford’s desire to maximize the display of his wealth prompted him to support a man who could record and embellish his wealth to best advantage. 

Beginning 1877 Muybridge devised an arrangement of 12 cameras sequentially tripped by wire to film Stanford’s horses, and then graduated to 24 cameras in 1879 — entirely underwritten by the tycoon along with all manner of supplies and devices, not to mention staff required to manage the horses, stables, and track. Muybridge and a man named John Dove Isaacs next adapted a magic lantern into a moving picture projector that could throw still images on a screen, using a shutter to separate pictures that alternated with a black screen revolving on a disk. He called the device a zoopraxiscope. Ball describes how it worked: 

Muybridge cut a disk the size of a dinner plate out of a piece of tin and then cut twelve slots into it, radiating from the center. He mounted the disk on an axle, so that it could spin like a wheel, and placed it in front of the light source of the projector. The light would be released through a slot as the disk turned, then blacked out, then released through the next slot, giving a fraction of a second of time for the pictures to move ahead without blurring.

Problems remained that Muybridge resolved by hiring an artist to paint elongated versions of the images on glass disks (thereby avoiding distortion) so that when projected they appeared as the horses running, cantering, and trotting — really a kind of sleight of hand that Ball labels a form of prestidigitation, as good a label as any. For particulars, see chapter 19. It’s complicated but not as phony as it sounds. The images were real.

In January 1880, following a year of testing and perfecting, Stanford asked Muybridge to give a demonstration for a coterie of rich friends in a salon, the Pompeian Room, at his home. Ball declares that moment the debut of the motion picture — confirming the claims of previous writers, like Rebecca Solnit. Not long after that, in May of 1880, Muybridge rented a lecture hall at the San Francisco Art Association for several nights of talks and shows. For the first time, pictures moved for an audience that paid, and “a roomful of viewers felt transfixed by life on a screen.”

Muybridge then became a showman who talked fluently about what he was screening, and he fascinated rapt audiences. Perhaps his residual English accent added a touch of cosmopolitanism. In any case, he became a sensation. Using the facilities that Stanford had built for him at the stock farm 35 miles to the south in what became Palo Alto, the book- and art-purveyor turned magician took pictures of numerous other animals (goats, mules, pigeons, eventually a lion), and then gymnasts tumbling, wrestling, and his own lithe body swinging a pick-axe. 

He continually improved his apparatus and technical set-up, and in May 1881 he put the prints from his work into a book titled The Attitudes of Animals in Motion. Soon he would be selling copies in order to enhance his income because Stanford had never paid him for his work: the tycoon had simply been the underwriter for the equipment and facilities. (Stanford later claimed that Muybridge had said he would work without pay if expenses were covered.) After the tycoon received his copy of the book, however, an assistant wrote Muybridge a check for $2,000, worth about $40,000 today. Fortunately, he had secured the rights to the pictures and some patents for one dollar. For him, those rights were tantamount to California gold.

Muybridge’s talk show sparked so much notoriety and curiosity that in the fall of 1881 he took the display of “moving images” to London and then Paris where it created quite a stir. By chance, entirely uncoordinated, the Stanfords were in Paris at the same time, but they did not mix in the same circles and never met. Miffed by Muybridge’s autonomy and success, Stanford decided to publish independently the pictures of his trotting horses and paid a Boston company to bring out The Horse in Motion, As Shown by Instantaneous Photography. Stanford wrote a preface and mentioned, quite casually, that he had hired a photographer. Muybridge’s name appeared just once off-handedly, in passing.

When a copy of Stanford’s book arrived in London at the peak of the inventor’s success, members of the Royal Society noticed only the barest trace of credit to Muybridge and became skeptical about his credibility. Had he really done everything he claimed? Lecture dates grew thin, dinner invitations for the latest celebrity disappeared, and Muybridge’s resources ran low. He sold four handmade copies of his book for enough money to return to California. Those buyers at least believed his claim that he had actually created the mechanisms and taken the pictures himself!

On his return, Muybridge brought a suit demanding $50,000 in damages from Osgood, the Boston publisher, claiming copyright infringement. Although his legal fees were fierce, he discovered a new source of income: showing and explaining the unique projector he had invented. After hiring a lecture agent, he made stops at Harvard College and MIT, and then the National Academy of Design and the Union League Club in New York. At a stop in Philadelphia he drew a crowd that included Thomas Eakins, a prominent artist who taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. That would lead, indirectly and fortuitously, to a new patron, the University of Pennsylvania, and through a wealthy group called the Muybridge Commission, some gentlemen would cover all his expenses and allow him to work on a vast scale that dwarfed what he had done at Stanford’s stock farm. So he deposited a generous advance check from that elite, moved to Philadelphia in the spring of 1884, and appropriated the title of “professor” even though he had no degrees at all. Names and titles mattered more to him than clothes and his personal appearance.

The commission’s largesse permitted him to work with 40 lenses, often placed at different angles, and he recruited men and women willing to perform various movements individually and sometimes entirely nude: jumping, climbing, walking — all to display the human form in motion. Although some authorities at Penn worried about negative publicity because of the nudity, especially of women, the images in sequence were such a novelty that the project proceeded, and Muybridge continued his peripatetic road show with considerable fanfare. He became an American celebrity, and gradually in Western Europe as well.

When he performed in West Orange, New Jersey, early in 1888, Thomas A. Edison attended because his lab was close by in Menlo Park — now famous because of Edison’s many inventions, especially the electric light and phonograph. A few days later Muybridge met with Edison at his lab and after answering a stream of questions from the younger but more renowned inventor, proposed that they combine their skills in order to link sound with moving images. Years later Muybridge recalled that “we talked about the practicability of using the Zoopraxiscope in association with the phonograph, so as to combine, and reproduce simultaneously, in the presence of an audience, visible actions and audible words.” He never heard from Edison again. The latter, a business-first genius, proceeded on his own with help from his talented staff, an asset that Muybridge lacked.

In 1885 a breakthrough occurred that liberated magic lantern adaptations from the slow and clumsy process of working with glass plate negatives. Celluloid was invented, a breakthrough comparable to the impact of plastics more than half a century later. Hardened cellulose had countless uses and made it possible to substitute a material that George Eastman, based in Rochester, New York, could convert to a thin, flexible, and transparent form for use in cameras. Once cellulose strips could actually be rolled and controlled with sprockets in 35-millimeter widths, revolutionary results emerged in 1889–90.

Meanwhile, Muybridge achieved the peak of his fame in 1891 with lectures hither and yon to accompany the images he had made in Philadelphia. His triumphant return to London brought the peculiar man to the peak of his fame and briefly, some affluence.

But for inexplicable reasons, Muybridge had never patented his most important device. So Edison, with no follow-up to their amicable meeting on February 27, 1888, set some of his staff to work secretly on what emerged in 1894 as the kinetoscope. They did that in a specially designed facility called the Black Maria where William Dickson and his crew shot some 200 short subjects between 1893 and 1900. Sound would not be added until 1927, but Muybridge, in a word, had been scooped. Humans moved and objects appeared in such a sequential way that suggested the potential for actual films, such as “The Great Train Robbery,” made in 1905, a hugely popular hit.

Although Muybridge set up a pavilion to demonstrate his Zoopraxiscope at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the famous Columbian Exhibition, he was located on the Midway as entertainment rather than in the section devoted to science and technological innovation. His audiences were modest, reluctant to pay for a display competing with countless other circus-like shows, such as Egyptian exotica, even belly dancers. The kind of sensation he had created in Paris and London a decade earlier, and then in the eastern Unite States, did not recur. Time had passed him by. So he moved back to his birthplace, Kingston-on-Thames and eventually died there in 1904, leaving his various instruments, negatives, and plates to a group planning a local museum.

Meanwhile, the Lumière brothers in France had created their own breakthrough and patented their cinematograph in 1895. Their first film showed workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon. Thus the initial moving picture show occurred in Paris on December 28, 1895. 

Edward Ball highlights Muybridge’s seminal role in making Edison’s achievement possible, and then others, but also makes clear the odds against someone with this inventor’s class, economic, and educational limitations achieving what he did. Patronage and patience were essential, and Muybridge’s naiveté and erratic temperament also worked against his chances for long-term success. 

Temperament, however, worked for as well as against Muybridge. At times he seemed oblivious to public opinion. Other men widely known to have murdered might have departed permanently for other climes, but Muybridge persisted and returned to San Francisco to pursue his craft. His biggest incentive during the 1870s? Leland Stanford’s curiosity and backing. 

In Philadelphia the inventor was regarded by a member of his supporting commission as “the most eccentric man I ever knew.” Indifference to public opinion served him well at times. Yet his ineffectual judgment about human relations caused him no end of difficulties with the people who mattered most: his wife, his rival for her affections, his patrons, and the scientific community in London. Being oblivious to the perceptions and needs of others did not serve him well. And yet, at the same time, it permitted him to move full speed ahead with his projects where others might not have persevered or simply tried a different line of work, as he once had flexibly done during the 1850s. Although he carefully guarded the secret of the chemicals he used on the glass plates, he failed to patent his most brilliant contraption. Again and again, his repeated inconsistencies cloud his story and limit his success. 

Ball’s book is organized to keep the reader pushing forward. He alternates chapters devoted to the biographies of each man until they ultimately converge. That approach works reasonably well for a while. Chapter 15 ends expectantly with the crowd awaiting a verdict from the Napa jury at 3 a.m. But the next chapter interrupts the narrative of the trial and dips back more than a decade to describe Muybridge’s efforts to hustle his goods in London and Paris during the 1860s. Suspense achieved. The following chapter then rejoins the murder saga and reveals how the verdict came down. That strategy insures that the book is not likely to be set aside halfway through. But the practice becomes somewhat disconcerting when the author tries to achieve contemporaneity within the focus of a single chapter. In 20, for example, we begin with Muybridge at Penn in 1884, shift abruptly to the Stanford family traveling from one European capital to another, then return to nude models in Philadelphia in 1885, {female rider, nude, p. 349} and then to the Stanfords once again heading from Italy to France, the death of Leland Junior, and back once more to the appearance of Muybridge’s book Animal Locomotion in 1885. Thus this chapter, titled “Motion, Study,” seems to be a modernist’s attempt at simultaneity and it just doesn’t work. Chronological momentum and clarity get totally lost on page 260.

William Kelleher Story has a widely used primer titled Writing History: A Guide for Students (1999) in which he offers the following advice:

Try as much as you can to determine when things happened. Use this information to place events in a chronological relationship. Try to make one timeline from all your source materials so that you may understand the order of events.

Edward Ball might have done that at some point in the preparation of this book, but eventually, as an aspiring modernist, he decided to scrap and scramble the timeline — with problematic consequences. 

Given Muybridge’s failure to maintain orderly records and correspondence, Ball must rely heavily on surmise to connect one event with another, explain causation and motivation. More often than not this reader found the author’s hunches helpful and persuasive, but words like “probably,” “might,” “seems to have” and “it is possible to imagine” as well as “chances are good” appear throughout. There is integrity in such honest usage, but also a tentative and predictable wordiness in attempting to figure out some of the relationships and impulses involved. Solnit’s River of Shadows is less intrusive in this respect.

A major coup, however, comes from the copious abundance of illustrations — many more than Solnit has — mostly of images made by Muybridge, but also sites where events happened. The book is lavishly pictorial and the design insures a carefully proximate relationship between what’s described in the text and pictorial locations. They contribute a great deal and help to move the reader along with clarity and piqued interest. 


Muybridge has now emerged as a giant in the history of science as well as art. His influence on such painters as Thomas Eakins, Francis Bacon, and Marcel Duchamp can be seen and traced elsewhere. In the case of Eakins, for example, it’s the fascination with nudity ranging from pubescent boys at a swimming hole to buxom women in motion. And with Duchamp one thinks immediately of his iconic Nude Descending a Staircase, first seen in the US at the memorable Armory Show a century ago in 1913. She strides downward with as much facility as Muybridge’s men and women. Duchamp’s painting exemplifies instantaneous stop-motion photography transcribed in oil on canvas. 

In the 1930s and early ’40s, several aspiring filmmakers hoped to make movies about the life of Muybridge because he was considered one of the pioneers of cinematography. Today we might regard the 1930s as a golden age for Hollywood, but there was sufficient insecurity about the new medium — some individuals perceived Muybridge as offering a kind of legitimacy in the form of a creation myth. He showed things the human eye cannot see, and from multiple angles simultaneously, ultimately by using three cameras for the same thing.

His subjects ranged from ethnography and war to architecture, landscapes, dazzling panoramas, but finally, and most memorably, how humans and animals move — in the flesh mostly, but even as animated skeletons. He managed to master space and time by enhancing speed with shrewd applications of chemistry and electricity. Genius and oddball, entertainer and eccentric, his story is engrossing.

This book may remind some readers of Erik Larson’s engaging narrative, The Devil in the White City (2003), the story of architect Daniel Burnham and a serial killer connected by the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. After 281 weeks, it remains a best seller. The saga of Muybridge and Stanford is equally compelling, and in my view it matters more because it exposes two fundaments of the American experience: rampant capitalist greed and the transformation of visual experience. That’s a topper.


Michael Kammen is the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus) at Cornell University, where he taught from 1965 until 2008

LARB Contributor

Michael Kammen was the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus) at Cornell University, where he taught from 1965 until 2008. In 1980-81 he held a newly created visiting professorship in American history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served in 1995-96 as President of the Organization of American Historians. In 2009 he received the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction. His books include People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (1972), awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1973; A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (1986), awarded the Francis Parkman Prize and the Henry Adams Prize; Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991); A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture (2004), Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (2006), and Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (2010).

He wrote prolifically for the Los Angeles Review of Books before passing away in November 2013. He will be missed.


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