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A Capitalist, a Murderer, a Gambling Bet, a Brain Injury, and an Earthquake

by joy ellen sauter 4 months ago in Historical

The invention of the motion picture

Photo series by Eadweard Muybridge

The cigar smoke in Leland Stanford’s parlor hung heavy in the air. The lucky men who attended Stanford’s elaborate dinner party in the spring of 1872 were brimming with privilege and money. Their wool vests barely buttoned around their swollen stomachs. Brandy in their hands, they discussed the current events of the day from the sweetness of Stanford's mansion in San Francisco.

All of the men had well groomed beards, as was the fashion of the day. Their black wool coats hung in the hall of Stanford’s grand entrance. Laughter filled the parlor, coming in harder swells as the Brandy flowed.

Leland Stanford was many things: lawyer, merchant, gambler, Governor of California, U.S. Senator, CEO, husband, and father. He made most of his money, though, through financing the Central Pacific Railroad. A rail line connecting Sacramento California to Promontory, Utah.

Leland Stanford, 1870, Wikimedia Commons

He was a privileged man, born from privileged men. As a child he loved to read. His father built him a library in 1848, but it burned down two years later.

He thought of himself as superior, and of a superior race. Proudly denigrating Chinese immigrants as inferior in outspoken speeches. Publicly, he decried they be turned away from America’s shores. Secretly, he orchestrated the arrival of thousands of Chinese immigrants to California he contracted to build his railroad.

He exploited his mostly Chinese workforce with unequal pay and benefits. The Chinese experienced dangerous working conditions justified only in greed and racism. Stanford made his millions, and built a glorious mansion in the Nob Hill section of San Francisco.

On May 10th, 1869, in Promontory Utah. Leland Stanford was given the honor of nailing the “golden spike.” The last rail spike connecting the Central Pacific Railroad, and the Union Pacific railroad. Stanford never lifted a finger to physically build the railroad, but he proudly took the credit. Connecting east and west, and diminishing the time to travel across America from six months to eight days.

It was a sunny and warm day, a crude and early version of a staged media event. The railroad company scrambled to find enough white laborers to fill the picture for the newspapers. Everyone gathered together for the celebration. At 2:47 pm, Governor Stanford drove in the ceremonial gold spike with a silver hammer.

The ceremonial spike bore this transcription: “May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world,"

Leland Stanford was also a lover of horses. He owned a huge ranch outside of San Francisco on land now called Stanford University. On the ranch, Stanford bred, trained, and raced champion horses. In 1872, after spending a week with his horses, he placed a drunken gambling bet at his dinner party. A bet costing him thousands of dollars, and six years to prove.

The pay off changed the fate of California. In fact, it changed the world. There is no record of this dinner party, only the tall tales of friends who would speak of it for years to come. The folklore they sent home in letters to friends back east. Stanford, and his bet.

That night, Stanford loudly told his dinner party guests about the wonder of his amazing horses. Certain when they run, his horses lift all four legs off the ground. For a moment gliding in mid air, the most beautiful thing he ever saw. If he could figure out the mechanics of it, perhaps he could breed them to run faster.

One of Stanford’s friends threw his fist on the table, declaring there was no way horses ran this way. It was against the scientific research of the time. Stanford was insane, the idea of was insane. Stanford was spending too much time at his ranch. The whole idea was the opposite of fact.

Stanford was sure, a gut feeling. He also loved to gamble, and was rich enough to waste away time and money for the fun of the bet. He demanded a wager, a bet. Money was put on the table. Stanford wasn’t a man that was used to losing.

Eadweard Muybridge, self portrait, 1899

Eadweard Muybridge was a different man. Born in England as Edward Muggerridge, he changed his name as frequently as he traveled. Trying new identities, and new places with wild abandon. He left England in 1850 for America, to become a bookseller.

Muybride was quiet, introspective. He preferred to be alone. He loved to read, but he also was a spirited adventurer. He slowly made his way west, stopping to set up his small book shops in dozens of frontier towns. He made it to California, and set up shop in San Francisco selling illustrated versions of Shakespeare’s plays.

It’s probably during the time Stanford and Muybridge met each other. Not in the same social circles, but through a love of books. They both had a spirited nature, but opposite personalities that made a wonderful match.

Eventually, Muybridge got either tired or bored of selling books. Longing for home, he made his way back to New York with the intention of traveling back to England. On a carriage ride in Texas, sometime in 1860, he was involved in a major accident. The horses ran loose, and Muybridge was flung from the carriage. Suspended in the air several yards, his head landed on a rock.

Muybridge suffered a permanent, and severe brain injury, waking up in Arkansas two weeks later. The doctor’s first words to him were, “You are not going to recover from this.” He did recover, slowly. Somehow, he made it back to New York, and got money in an insurance settlement with the carriage company to travel back to England.

Muybridge, though, was not the same man. His brown hair turned white after the accident, and he had a disheveled appearance. He complained of headaches, and the loss of taste and smell. He grew more temperamental, now known for bursts of anger.

He also retreated into isolation, becoming obsessed with the science of photography. Over the next five years he was granted several patents for inventions to improve the development process of photography.

He invented a new process for developing film that was lighter and easier, using non toxic chemicals. He also increased the shutter speed of the camera to fractions of a second.

It’s possible his obsession with photography was related to his brain damage. The damage to his brain affected part of the brain where OCD is activated. Eventually, he got bored of England.

He remembered America, with its wide open space, natural wonders, and sense of adventure. Landscape photography of the American frontier was extremely popular. Pictures of the mountains, canyons, and natural topography sold for big money.

Muybridge in 1867

Muybride decided to head back to America, this time as a documentary photographer of the frontier. Using modern methods of photography he invented, Muybridge traveled west.

He made it back to California, but friends said they didn’t even recognize Eadweard. His appearance and personality were completely different. He preferred isolation, and was not pleasant in conversation.

Muybridge married in 1871, although he seemed more inconvenienced than excited. Now quick to temper, and constantly traveling for his work, he declared the marriage should not make him change his habits. Muybridge was cold, and absent, and his wife took on a companion.

The bet Stanford made that evening in his parlor would bring these two former acquaintances back together. The next morning, Stanford had his secretary telegraph Muybridge with a commissioned photography assignment: “Photograph my horses running.”

Muybridge took the assignment. In order to win the bet for Stanford, he would need to invent a new way of photographing moving objects. At this time, the shutter speed (the time the film is exposed to light) was still so slow that wind or any slight movement made the picture blurry.

Muybridge bought and took apart a series of five cameras with the goal of increasing shutter speed. His idea was to set up the cameras equal spaces apart on the track, and build a system of trip wires to take the pictures. Solving the problem with shutter speed was trial and error.

A year into the project, Muybridge discovered letters his wife wrote to her lover, suggesting their son was really the product of the affair, not Muybridge’s biological son. Muybridge became enraged, trembling with anger. He walked the streets spitting obscenities, and screaming at random people.

He decidedly walked to the house of his wife’s lover, knocked on the door, and shot and killed him point blank. He was arrested and charged with murder.

Leland Stanford hired Muybridge the best lawyer he could find, nothing stood in the way of his bet. Muybridge pleaded guilty by reason of insanity. Dozens of friends testified to Muybridge’s temper and indifference after his accident. In the end, the jury acquitted him because they couldn’t convict someone for doing something they would have done themselves. Justifiable homicide.

Muybridge’s wife died shortly after the trial, and Muybridge sent his son to an orphanage to grow up, never paying for him or acknowledging his existence. He had work, and constant obsession, and his many inventions in photography.

He had to get back to work for Stanford. In 1874, he managed to develop one photograph, stunning imagery proving Stanford correct. A blurry image, clearly depicting a horse running with all four legs off the ground. Changing the course of previous scientific belief. Muybridge wasn’t satisfied. He continued working on the project, and Stanford financed the building of large photography workshops at his ranch.

In 1878, Muybridge documented the first series of moving pictures. It was a series of photos called “Horse in motion.” He also improved on the invention of the zoetrope, originally invented in 1836. Creating a spinning drum rotating the picture at a speed of a horse's natural stride. The results astounded the public. It was the first motion picture.

The Horse in Motion

Muybridge went back east, to Philadelphia, and continued to work on his techniques. He felt his photography could make advancements in science, continuing to photograph people and animals in motion. It was an amazing invention, but he didn't see the applications of it as a vehicle to tell stories.


At the crossroads of science and art, a new invention rocked California. Just ten years after Muybridge’s “Horse in Motion,” other innovators would build on it. At the 1893 World’s fair in Chicago, a new invention would premier that set the world on fire. A short movie.

Muybridge was afraid of being forgotten, a fear he told friends in private. In the technological process of man, Muybridge found a way to make space and time stand still. Encapsulated forever in time, in a space a long time gone from this world. We can look back to remember, or look back to understand. Photos are a testament to time, and a document to our shared humanity.

The invention of the motion picture led to developments in photography, movies, television, and other forms of visual media. It was the beginning of a technological era unlike anything man had seen before. Capturing a moment where man learned to make time and space stand still, allowing us to look back and imagine forward.

Muybridge’s legacy has not been forgotten. He created the cornerstone for the invention of the motion picture, the beginning of an idea that would put a smartphone in your hand.

Stanford had a different legacy. A robber baron, a racist, and a boastful man. He came to California with his brothers originally looking for gold. He invested in hydraulic mining, a method of gold extraction invented in California. Hydraulic mining used high pressure hoses of water blasted deep into the gravel beds of the earth. This method caused the water to rise, and gold to sink to the bottom, making large scale extraction possible.

It was a ghastly and dangerous process, detrimental to the environment, damaging the volatile earth beneath the borders of California. Hydraulic mining extracted gold from the minerals deposited from volcanic eruptions under the sea millions of years ago. Brought to the surface through tectonic shifts in the earth.

The result of decades of hydraulic mining set off a series of mild earthquakes that shook the region even after the mining method was banned for its unstable consequences. The earthquakes were small, but frequent. The small earthquakes created tension between the North Atlantic and Pacific plates. This tension is partially to blame for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The earthquake leveled Stanford's home in Nob Hill. Gone were the days of fancy dinner parties, cigar filled rooms, and expensive gambling projects. In pursuit of quick and easy money, Stanford’s legacy remains the power of privilege, the exploitation of people, and the destruction of the environment. The ultimate capitalist.

It all happened in the wild west. Where the pace of life is the lawlessness of action. Where murderers become innovators, and kings become demons. Bringing forth a whiteness on a land with non white destiny. Speeding up time, and shrinking spaces in no time at all.

The story is as American as you can get.

Boys playing leap frog, Muybridge

joy ellen sauter
joy ellen sauter
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joy ellen sauter

Joy lives in Seattle, Washington, but is a native east coaster. She has kids and dogs- all adopted through foster care. She writes about mental health, history, pop culture, foster care, trauma, human rights, and parenting.

See all posts by joy ellen sauter

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