Saturday, December 9, 2017

Empires of Light

Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World 
© 2004 Jill Jonnes
464 pages

Empires of Light is less a history of how the United States became electrified and more a biography of three electrical titans – Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse -- as they pursued their own electrical projects in cooperation and bitter conflict. All three were passionate, heedless inventors who loved plowing their money in money into new ideas, sometimes at the cost of bankruptcy. They differed sharply, however, on the best way to distribute electricity. Edison preferred the safe, expensive, and density-demanding direct current. Westinghouse and Tesla both viewed alternating current -- which was easy to ramp up the voltage or ‘speed’ of electricity, and transmit at long distances -- as far more promising, allowing them to reach places that didn’t have the population density of New York City or Pittsburgh. Alternating current was more dangerous to work with, however, and Edison used his rivals’ volatility for all it was worth. When the State of New York considered using electricity for the death penalty, Edison – borrowing a page from Marc Anthony’s funeral speech lauding Caesar’s assassins – praised the merits of Westinghouse’s AC for killing people. He hopefully speculated that perhaps in the future death row would be the “westinghouse”, and killing someone with electricity would be a verb – “He was westinghoused”. Sheer economics, however, shifted favor to AC’s court, and by 1930 even Midwest towns could count on the lights being on. Edison would return to his phonograph and open the doors for moving pictures and Hollywood, while Tesla – whose AC projects had made possible the electrification of Niagra Falls – would drift from idea to idea, all of which were ‘ahead of their time’, and none of which ever became realized. One that came close was a radio-controlled mini-boat.

Although Empires is often entertaining – between chapters on patent wars, anyway – the combination of biography and business/technical history didn’t quite click for me, possibly because I was chiefly interested in the electrification of the US and less so in the projects (The White City, Niagra) that allowed Westinghouse to prove AC’s worth. Readers will glean only a flicker of information about the pace of electrical expansion, chiefly through the cited sales of AC light bulbs. These men certainly merit reading about: Edison and Tesla are both legends, but Westinghouse made his reputation in brilliant but boring improvements to railroad brakes and such, and his and Teslas’ expansion of the AC system accomplished the same for the electrical infrastructure of the US.

Phillip Schewe's The Grid: A Journey into the Heart of Our Electrified World is more about national electrification, but its history jumped from Edison's early attempts at municipal power transmission to governments co-opting power companies as public utilities.

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