Ball, best known for his National Book Award-winning history of his family's slave-owning past, Slaves in the Family, explores the unexpected collaboration between railroad tycoon Leland Stanford and renowned photographer Eadweard Muybridge in nineteenth-century California – a meeting that brought art, technology, and money together with far-reaching cultural impact. "The Inventor and the Tycoon" captures not just the improvised, unpredictable life trajectories of its strong-willed characters – but also the emergence of California onto the national stage and a period of unprecedented technological advancement in American history. Its themes of ambition, greed, and progress on the backs of others remain ever relevant.
Neither of Ball's subjects would win points for charm. Leland Stanford, the financial wheeler-dealer behind the western half of the transcontinental railroad, was unscrupulous in business and taciturn in person. Edward Muybridge, the eccentric, British-born photographer and inventor, was for a time as renowned for having killed his wife's lover as for his iconic landscapes of the American West. His early photographic work, many reproductions of which are included in Ball's book, include breathtaking views of Yosemite, extraordinary panoramas of the still-young and rapidly growing city of San Francisco, and what Ball declares was "some of the first ethnography in North America."
Muybridge was an itinerant loner who reinvented himself multiple times, down to the very spelling of his name, which mutated over the years from Edward Muggeridge to Eadweard Muybridge, with several stops in between. Although he did his most important work as "Edward Muybridge" and ended up as the unpronounceable "Eadweard," Ball has chosen to use all of the variations, "attaching each to the time in his life that he assumed it." A more difficult challenge in writing about Muybridge is that the man left so few traces beyond his photographs. Ball meets this by filling in the gaps with conjectures and suppositions supported by circumstantial evidence. The result is a text filled with more "would haves" and "might haves" than you usually see in biographies.