Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes
CHARACTERS: Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse
DATE READ: November 3 - November 11
NO. OF PAGES: 370
Off the Shelf (pre-2012)? Source?: no, public library
CATEGORY: History Class
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 the 19th 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 smaller, 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 an 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. Employees of the Westinghouse companies also donated $600,000 to help with the payments.
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.
"Today's civilization is full of people who have not the slightest notion of the character or the poetry of night, who have never seen night. Electricity allowed a greater regimentation of life, ripping away the natural rhythms of time and season. The quieting of work and home as the natural light disappeared no longer existed, nor did families gather about the hearth for heat and light." "19th century human experience was first-hand, in-person, intimate, authentic...With electricity came a veritable cornucopia of possible new experiences....many of them are experienced secondhand."
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. But there is still the requirement of power lines and current reaching the equipment which will give us light and heat. The next invention needed is a machine which prevents power failures so that those who are hit by massive storms can still have the benefits of electricity. Who will be the Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse of the 21st century?