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Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla,…

Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify… (original 2003; edition 2004)

by Jill Jonnes

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293838,321 (3.82)9
Title:Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World
Authors:Jill Jonnes
Info:Random House Trade Paperbacks (2004), Paperback, 464 pages
Collections:MCL, READ, Read but unowned
Tags:HISTORY, ^2012

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Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes (2003)

  1. 10
    AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by Tom McNichol (ryvre)
    ryvre: AC/DC is a more enjoyable and informative book.

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Written like a novel with much supposition, it nevertheless has enough to give a historian an idea what was going on. ( )
  lisahistory | Apr 16, 2016 |
I seem to have a bad track record in picking technology. I was one of those who plumped for HD-DVD instead of the now-ubiquitous Blu-Ray; I was obsessed with my MiniDisc player long after music companies had stopped bothering to release anything on the format; and back home, in a cupboard somewhere, my family still has the old Betamax player that I remember trying to get excited about while all my friends had gone with VHS. It was better, I'm telling you!!

So I sympathise with those on the wrong side of the original standards war – the nineteenth-century showdown between DC and AC electricity. At stake was limitless commercial opportunity, as American cities gradually became convinced of the benefits of adopting electric power; and each side of the debate had its own big-name champions.

In the red corner, for DC, the Wizard of Menlo Park himself – Thomas Edison. He pumped millions of dollars and several years of his life into the quest to find a practical commercial lightbulb, and DC power was the lynchpin of his schemes for expansion.

Against him, in the blue corner, was a dream combination of genius industrialist George Westinghouse, and crazed ahead-of-his-time dreamer Nikola Tesla, who both saw the possibilities of AC.

The battle was astonishingly acrimonious, and full of bizarre turns. When the state of New York began to consider whether electricity might make a more humane alternative to hanging as a form of capital punishment, Edison and his DC supporters immediately wrote to the authorities to recommend AC power, hoping to rebrand their opponents' standard as ‘the executioner's current’. (The first victim of the electric chair was indeed executed – messily and not quickly – by alternating current in Buffalo in 1890.)

It has become fashionable in this narrative to revere Tesla as a maligned visionary, and consequently to cast Edison as an uncreative drudge who just happened to be superbly well funded. There is a grain of truth somewhere in this, but it's also clear that Tesla could be difficult and he was not good at communicating (let alone monetising) his ideas. His catalogue of OCDish, quasi-autistic foibles didn't help:

He (silently) counted each step he took as he made his early morning walk down to the Ivry factory. Every activity ideally had to be divisible by three (hence the twenty-seven laps each morning in the Seine). Before eating or drinking anything, he felt obliged to calculate its cubic contents. He deeply disliked shaking hands with anyone. He had a ‘violent aversion against the earrings of women,’ pearls above all. ‘I would not touch the hair of other people except, perhaps, at the point of a revolver.’ The mere sight of a peach brought on a fever. Moreover, Tesla could (and happily did) recite long swathes of Serbian poetry from heart.

He sounds amazing fun, but a bit of a nightmare as a business partner.

In the end, Tesla was right but naïve, while Edison was wrong but stubborn. George Westinghouse (the unexpected hero of the book) found the best balance. The fact is that DC power is simply very inefficient and expensive over long distances, and a new generator was needed in every square mile to be powered – one every few blocks, in town. AC, by contract, can be transmitted vast distances, so that a remote hydroelectric station can light up cities that are many miles away.

I would have liked more scientific detail on the physics behind all this, and as it was I had to supplement this book with various enlightening excursions to Wikipedia and YouTube. Jonnes also allows herself to get a bit carried away on occasion (‘one of those delicious fall Saturdays where the very air shimmers sweetly, full of life's promise and yet tempered by autumnal tristesse’…tristesse, really?).

Nevertheless, this story of America's Gilded Age and the personalities behind the electric revolution is very well told. It was a time of remarkable, almost unbelievable scientific progress, and progress moreover that was immediately pumped visibly into commercial circulation. It wasn't like the Higgs Boson; a breakthrough in the lab on Monday would be crowbarred onto the High Street by the weekend. The effect must have been like living in a science-fiction novel. (But then what do I know; I said the same thing about my Betamax.) ( )
  Widsith | Apr 27, 2014 |
Electricity - something that is much in the news lately thanks to Superstorm Sandy and the impact of power outages in the Northeast, but over one hundred years ago, during the final decades of the19th century, three visionaries fought over the world and how it should be electrified.

The most famous was, of course, Thomas Edison, and with his invention of the incandescent light bulb, he jumped to the forefront. Most people, if asked will name Edison as the chief person responsible for the electricity that we know today, however, Edison was insistent on the DC (direct current) version of electricity whereas Nikola Tesla, a Serb immigrant, and one-time Edison employee, devised an AC (alternating current) generator and along with George Westinghouse championed the AC current we know today.

Edison was the darling of the media because of previous inventions (phonograph, stock ticker, vote recorder) and his creation the incandescent light bulb, while Westinghouse was content to sit in the background - his inventions of the railroad air brakes and automatic signaling systems increased safety but weren't glamorous. Westinghouse worked to improve products stating "My ambition is to give as many persons as possible an opportunity to earn money by their own efforts." He was a man for the labor forces - giving higher wages, ½ day Saturdays, disability benefits, and pensions.

Westinghouse invented the first transformer which allowed Alternating Current service for small wider areas while Edison's DC company could not handle anything that was not within a short distance of the power plant. Yet Edison was furious that Westinghouse was cutting in on his action. Edison expected that the entire electrical empire should belong to him.

Edison fought ruthlessly against the advancement of the DC current contingent even attempting to discredit its safety by having NY state use it for their death penalty executions.

However, the Westinghouse Electric Company was successful in showing the benefits of the AC when they were awarded two much sought after contracts - the lighting of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and the Niagara Falls Power plant (in conjunction with N. Tesla). Each of these projects was a major prize for Westinghouse, and insult to GE (Edison had already been bought out).

But as much as Westinghouse armed with Tesla's patents was able to electrify larger areas, he still had to deal with money men and several times in the last decades of the century he was put into difficult financial positions. Once, to stave off the company floundering, Tesla agreed to forgo royalties (estimates of $17.5 Million in his lifetime) for his patents so that the Westinghouse Electric Co. would stay afloat and continue to champion the Alternating Current path.

In the Panic of 1907 when national banking and finance had a meltdown, Westinghouse was forced to file for bankruptcy even though the companies were profitable. European expansion had drained his cash and he was unable to pay certain loans. He lost control of Westinghouse Electric and his spirit was broken. But his vision for the betterment of all, not just the elite continued and thrived to this day.

The alternating current envisioned by Tesla and put into reality by Westinghouse has made it possible for the amazing advancements through the 20th and into the 21st century. ( )
6 vote cyderry | Nov 11, 2012 |
A very well researched and written historical novel. Reads like a fast-moving, suspenseful fiction piece. Only complaints: paragraphs could get pretty long and I really, really wish there were more diagrams. There were some really basic ones at the beginning, but it would have been cool had they carried on and shown how the more complex technologies operated as the meat of the story developed. ( )
  pineapplejuggler | Mar 11, 2012 |
Empires of Light has the characters and storyline of a TV drama, but is educational to boot. There's Edison--brilliant, visionary, and such a hard worker he lived at Menlo Park, rarely visiting his family. Obsessed with retaining the upper hand in the blossoming electricity industry, he went so far as to stealthily endorse electricity as a new method of execution, but only his competitors' brand. Nicola Tesla, a young prodigy whose ideas ranged from the revolutionary to the fantastic, was deathly afraid of women's earrings. George Westinghouse, hardworking industrialist, refused to crumble under extreme pressure from a new breed of economic powerhouse, the mega-corporation General Electric. The story of how America became electrified is also that of an adolescent nation defining itself in the midst of the industrial revolution.
  delirium | May 8, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375758844, Paperback)

Jill Jonnes's compelling Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World offers a multi-sided tale of America's turn-of-the-20th-century quest for cheap, reliable electrical power. Along the way, the book profiles key personalities in both the science and industry of electrification and dramatizes the transformation of American society that accompanied the technological revolution. As her sub-title suggests, Jonnes's focus is on the three great personalities behind the building of the electricity industry. But, as she makes clear, the electrification of America was much more than a pathbreaking scientific quest. The genius of such poet-scientists as Nikola Tesla depended on the more finely tuned business skills of George Westinghouse and the towering capital of J.P. Morgan to achieve actualization. And even Thomas Edison and Westinghouse--innovative industrial combatants in the war between AC and DC current--were victims of the far more powerful and conservative financial forces of Wall Street. Indeed, for Jonnes, the story of electricity is as much about the legions of patent attorneys and bankers who controlled the flow of industry as it is about the circulation of current. Her sophisticated portrait of Gilded Age science, business, and society brings new light to the forces that underlie technological revolutions. As she reveals, it is not so much the great public men of science who directed the destiny of America's eventual empire of light; rather, the path was solidified by those men behind the scenes who were wise enough (and perhaps ruthless enough) to impose their legal, financial, and political dominance onto the scientific innovation--a valuable message for all eras. --Patrick O’Kelley

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:12:44 -0400)

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"In the final decades of the nineteenth century, three brilliant and visionary titans of America's Gilded Age - Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse - battled bitterly as each vied to create a vast and powerful electrical empire. In Empires of Light, historian Jill Jonnes portrays this extraordinary trio and their riveting and ruthless world of cutting-edge science, invention, intrigue, money, death, and hard-eyed Wall Street millionaires. At the heart of the story are Thomas Alva Edison, the nation's most famous and folksy inventor, creator of the incandescent light bulb and mastermind of the world's first direct current electrical light networks; the Serbian wizard of invention Nikola Tesla, elegant, highly eccentric, a dreamer who revolutionized the generation and delivery of electricity; and the charismatic George Westinghouse, Pittsburgh inventor and tough corporate entrepreneur, an industrial idealist who in the era of gaslight imagined a world powered by cheap and plentiful electricity and worked heart and soul to create it." "Edison struggled to introduce his radical new direct current (DC) technology into the hurly-burly of New York City as Tesla and Westinghouse challenged his dominance with their alternating current (AC), thus setting the stage for one of the eeriest feuds in American corporate history, the War of the Electric Currents. The battlegrounds: Wall Street, the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Niagara Falls, and, finally, the death chamber - Jonnes takes us on the tense walk down a prison hallway and into the sunlit room where William Kemmler, convicted ax murderer, became the first man to die in the electric chair."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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