I walked up the face of Nob Hill to look at the place where it used to stand. Could there be a tiny remnant of this temple of money? The hill had been known as California Hill until Leland Stanford and family moved there in , followed by their preposterously rich friends. After that it was Nob Hill. The day after the earthquake the fire came, on a Thursday morning in April, and the two disasters took down all the big houses but one.
At the top of Nob Hill today are apartment buildings, hotels, a little park. The place that survived, the last sign of the sovereigns who had set themselves up on these blocks, was the Flood house. James Flood, a mining multimillionaire, was one of the men who exploited the Comstock Lode, a thick vein of silver in Nevada that ended up in most coins. The fire had somehow wrapped around and missed his house. I looked at the Flood house, a megalith in brown stucco, and imagined it in its original setting, amid a colony of American palaces.
The first and most ostentatious of them, the Stanford house, used to stand a block to the east, at California and Powell Streets. An eight-story hotel now occupied that site, planted over the ruins. Only the granite wall that used to frame the house remained. But one episode of those years, as far as I can see, has been overlooked. It could be said that the world of visual media got under way on this hill, amid the new money of California, in the late s. It happened one night at a party, at which the entertainment was a photographer called Edward Muybridge.
Just what it was that happened that night could not be accurately described for many years. It would not be comprehensible until the movie theaters had spread and the television stations were built, or maybe even until screens appeared in most rooms and people carried them in their hands.
That winter night in San Francisco pictures jumped into motion, someone captured time and played it back. A newspaperman noticed that something unusual had happened, although he did not say anything about time.
He noticed only that whatever it was that happened had taken place in the home of the best-known citizen of the state of California; he noticed these facts but missed the main event. The newspaperman pointed out that a photographer of angular shape named Edward Muybridge and his new machine had been the reason for the gathering, but he did not describe what Muybridge had done.
We know who came around to the stupendous mansion where Muybridge assembled his mechanism and put it in motion and carried it through its initial performance.
‘The Inventor and the Tycoon’: the birth of moving pictures
The event with the photographer took place in the home of an abnormally rich family. It was the end of the week. The family stayed in for the evening and invited some friends for a party and a show. Their brown, stuccoed palazzo occupied the best site on California Hill, looking out to the flickering lights on San Francisco Bay and down at the streets of the rolling city. From a block away—and you had to get that far back to see the whole thing—the house looked to be a chunky, dark mass, Italianate in style.
When the decorators were finished, the place had a magnitude and pretense that no one in California had previously seen. Without rival, it was the most talked-up house west of the Mississippi. The Stanford family lived here, just three people, a mother and father and their eleven-year-old son. The Stanfords employed about twelve servants, half of whom lived in the brown house and some of whom traveled with the family to serve them at their horse farm south of the city.
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This year he was Edward Muybridge, but the spelling of his name would soon change, as it had done on four previous occasions. Every few years, the photographer would move a vowel or switch a couple of consonants.
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He used to be Edward Muygridge, and before that, Edward Muggeridge. Along with his name, his working life had already passed through several metamorphoses. During his twenties Muybridge had been a book and print salesman for a London publisher; he sold dictionaries and encyclopedias and art books, engravings, and lithographs. In his thirties he tried to make a living as an inventor but failed when buyers showed indifference to his patents. After that, he put on the top hat of a capitalist: he started a mining company, and then an investment firm. Both ended badly.
At age thirty-seven, he invented himself for the last time, as an artist: he became a photographer. He had followed a wandering path and only came to a single road as a middle-aged man. The choice of photography, at last, seemed to him to vindicate all the disappointments and failures that had gone before. Edward Muybridge wore a beard down to the middle of his chest, a gray weave with a dark residue. Occasionally he might have combed it. The hair on his head was white, swirling at the ears, tossed up from his brow.
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His eyes were sharp blue. This story, however, is not the only one Ball tells. As the title makes clear, the book is about two men — not just the brilliant and eccentric artist, but also his patron, the railroad magnate Leland Stanford. Stanford, best remembered today for founding the university named for his son, helped to build the first transcontinental railroad in the United States, a feat that made him a controversial figure and an immensely wealthy man.
In no personal indulgence, though, did Stanford take greater pleasure than his horses. For Stanford, whose love of horses had become a near obsession, it was not enough simply to see them run. He wanted to know how they ran. The very speed that made them so thrilling to watch, however, also made it impossible to study their gait closely, or to prove a hypothesis that Stanford fervently espoused: While galloping, horses at some point have all four hooves off the ground, thus becoming, however briefly, airborne. He made pictures move.
As the lighted photographs appeared in quick succession, the horse in the image seemed to gallop. The entire story about the growing of America, the railroads, the advent of motion pictures and the founding of California and Stanford University kept me wanting to hear more. If you could sum up The Inventor and the Tycoon in three words, what would they be? This is one of my favorite history books I have 'read' in the last few years.
The Inventor and the Tycoon : A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures
It has a similar style to "The Professor and the Madman" which I also loved. Definitely great insights into the beginning of movies, the founding of Stanford University, and life in California in the late s. Muybridge was certainly an odd character but so were many from the period e. It does jump around in time from chapter to chapter, but I got used to that.
Definitely, a worthwhile bit of history. Get Your Free Audiobook. Written by: Edward Ball. Narrated by: John H. Length: 15 hrs and 19 mins. A skillfully written tale of technology and wealth, celebrity and murder and the nativity of today's dominant art and entertainment medium.
'The Inventor and the Tycoon' is compelling yet complicated
What members say. No Reviews are Available. Sort by:. Most Helpful Most Recent. Andy Sheepish Reader 'n' Writer Long time to get started,then the history took ov What did you like best about The Inventor and the Tycoon? Cries out for not only Muybridge's photographs but also the paintings mentioned and the other photographers 2 of 2 people found this review helpful.
Amber NO What three words best describe John H. Noreen Wonderfully informative story What made the experience of listening to The Inventor and the Tycoon the most enjoyable? The reader What did you like best about this story? Just the right tone and inflection Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? No, I did not Any additional comments? Amazon Customer Fascinating tale of 2 great historical characters If you like history, you'll enjoy this tale of a great railroad tycoon and a cutting edge photographer who helped invent motion pictures.
Pat Facinating story full of historical information What made the experience of listening to The Inventor and the Tycoon the most enjoyable?
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