Leland Stanford — the richest man west of the Mississippi, the Croesus who would inspire Frank Norris’s anti-monopoly novel “The Octopus” — invited San Francisco’s elite to his Nob Hill mansion on Jan. 16, 1880. What his guests saw was something the public had never seen before; it shocked and thrilled them — and later the world. For Edward Muybridge’s moving pictures of a horse in motion displayed on a screen would usher in not only the movies but what author Edward Ball views as the age of visual media.
Photographer Muybridge and railroad tycoon Stanford, a bohemian artist and a straitlaced patron, partnered in a revolution that neither had foreseen. It all began with a simple question: Did a galloping horse ever lift all four hooves off the ground at once? Yes, a blurry Muybridge photograph first demonstrated, followed by the more sensational evidence of his movie prototype a few years later.