Jill Jonnes' EMPIRES OF LIGHT
Review by Dennis D. McDonald
This is a popular history about three “giants” of electrification — Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla. Along the way we learn a lot about the commercialization of electricity in late 19th century America and the role that large corporations played in the spread of this technology. We also see how important patents — and patent protection — were in enabling a few powerful individuals to control the spread of the new technology.
The initial sections on European development of battery and magnetic research are fascinating. Much is devoted to Michael Faraday. What emerges is an interesting picture of how individual effort pushed development and was aided by formal social structures (e.g., Royal Society) for vetting and supporting research.
Also interesting were details of Benjamin Franklin’s early involvement with electrical research. His “kite and key” experiment is described very briefly here but it is put into the context of a fascinating description of basic electrical research leading up to the main story.
A major focus of the book is on the competition between the commercialization of direct current (DC) by Edison and alternating current (AC) by Westinghouse. Initially there are details of how several rich, forward-thinking New Yorkers had their houses electrified by replacing gas with electric light. The description of their not-always-pleasant experiences shows that “bleeding edge early adopters” have setbacks no matter what the technology. Later we see how brutal the competition became between Edison (DC) and Westinghouse (DC), culminating in the astonishing promotion of AC by Edison as a tool for legal executions.
The section on Edison’s development of the first “electric utility network” in Manhattan is a very good read. It puts development of the electric light into the context of the need to develop the entire system including technology finance and infrastructure including dynamos, running cables, buying land, digging holes, and fixing breakages.
The book shows how organized and well-financed team efforts were becoming more important as the scope of technology applications mushroomed. Edison’s individually-focused efforts are compared and contrasted with Westinghouse’s better grasp of corporate finance and industrialization which bear out the eventual victory of DC over AC.
What I found most interesting about his book was what I earned about Tesla. His development and refinement of electric motors (and the patents associated with them) are effectively and non-technically described. But it is the scope of some of his later research that is most amazing, especially his experiments with wireless transmission of information and energy. Had Tesla been working with a more disciplined management team, or had his laboratory not burned down when it did, it is interesting to speculate that we may have had cell phones, television, and the Internet early in the 20th Century