Book Review: Empires of Light

EmpiresOfLightby Brad Nelson   4/15/14
This is a rare book that combines history and technology in a very readable form. And consider this part of your course study for understanding and appreciating the fruits of Western Civilization. The power behind your iPad was not something dreamed up in the Sudan.

Given the topics undertaken — technology, empires, banks, capitalism, trusts — author Jill Jonnes is decidedly even-handed in the portrayal of this story. Clearly George Westinghouse is held up as the kind of “progressive” enlightened capitalist (and he may have been just that). And the banks are all heartless and greedy “unfettered” capitalists (and a few of them may have been just that). But it’s the story of three men — Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison — that takes center stage. The liberal bias is at a minimum.

And that story is about how America, and indeed the world, was magically transformed (and Tesla did seem to have a bit of magic working for him) by the introduction of electricity and its practical applications. If was the kind of “fundamental transformation” that wasn’t Obama-creepy and that you could get excited about.

The book starts with a general overview of all the men who first delved into the subject of electricity, finally working up to Ben Franklin and then the period of the late 19th century when the exploration really took off. And this is a good and not too-detailed history.

If the book is to be believed, Westinghouse was a saint (by business standards) who cared less about profits and more about helping people; Tesla was a genius eccentric (bordering on a kook at times) with an even more idealistic streak (to the extent of giving up millions of dollars worth of royalties on his patents); and Edison was a single-minded inventor whose single-mindedness and stubborness caused him to miss huge business and inventive opportunities.

The meat of the book is about the battle between the Westinghouse/Tesla coalition and the Edison/General Electric one. The former was into AC current. The latter was into DC. If you are afraid that this book includes too many technical details, don’t be. The reverse is true. There are not enough. And at least in the Kindle edition that I read, the illustrations and photographs are fairly sparse as well.

Given the nature of the topic — old, but marvelous technology — I’m surprised this book didn’t link to online photos and further explanations of the technology or (in this wonderful electronic age of our own) didn’t have embedded animations explaining the basic concepts. When can eBooks really be electronic books? Apparently not yet. One only can wonder at the wonderful (but probably impractical) ways Tesla might have re-invented the eBook.

But that criticism aside, this is a good read. One of the bitterest corporate struggles ever was between these two factions. And this is surely a book a lawyer would love because both factions had to spend a tremendous amount of money on lawyers TeslaCoilas both technologies developed and competed just to hold onto their patents. The fact was, if you didn’t have money behind you, your patents were almost as good as non-existent. The big companies would just “borrow” your ideas and dare you to prove that they didn’t belong to them.

Edison, in this book, turns out to be both a brilliant figure and a pathetic one. He had the world-beating AC system handed to him on a silver platter (by Tesla). But Edison, for various reasons (mostly pride), would not budge from his DC. And this opened the door wide open for Westinghouse who was a kind of Steve-Jobs-like visionary.

The problem with DC (direct current) is that because of the expense of copper, you were limited to building power stations that could extend only in a half mile radius. That was fine early on when it was the richer urban areas who were the customers. But with AC (alternating current) you could (theoretically, at first…the technology had not quite been developed and put into practical application) transport current for miles with little loss and do so economically. (This has something to do with very high AC voltages being able to be carried on relatively thin copper wire, and then stepped down to lower voltages at the other end, near the end user.)

The book is a little light on explaining some of the technical details and is not particularly well organized when it does so. But if you have the barest of backgrounds on the difference between AC and DC, what a generator is, and what a transformer is, you’ll be fine. If not, you’ll want to do a bit of Googling as you go. These are all fascinating and very fundamental technologies that shape our lives in ways we’ve become inured to.

And besides the fascinating story and rivalry of these men, that is the draw of this book. You are guaranteed to no longer take the marvelous world of electricity so for granted after reading this. Of special note is the author’s wonderful description of the amazing Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 where electrical technology burst forth onto the American and world stage.

I often, as just a fun thought experiment, wonder where I would go if I had a time machine and could choose three or four times and places. The building of the pyramids might be one. And I’d love to see the real “Jurassic Park” full of dinosaurs in ancient epics. But I’ve revised at least one of my top picks: What I wouldn’t give to walk around that 1893 world’s fair, especially to see Tesla’s marvelous display (as well as the many Westinghouse AC behemoths that were actually lighting up the entire exposition). Here are a few sample photos.

And similar to the book, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times, you’re immersed into that era. Jonnes does a nice job of bringing forth surrounding events to put this AC/DC battle into some kind of historical context. This is one of the real strengths of this book, for even if you don’t care a lick about electricity or the battles between corporate titans, you will enjoy learning of this golden era. • (1811 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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7 Responses to Book Review: Empires of Light

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    After reading the review in National Review, I was already thinking this might be worth reading. I have a lot of books on the history of science (in fact, I’m currently almost finished reading Periodic Tales, a history of certain aspects of chemistry).

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Got a link for that NRO review? I’d love to read what someone else thought of it. Here I try to not get too detailed and give more of a “feel” for what the book is like…and then people can decide if it is their thing or not. But I do enjoy those reviews that might delve more into the minutia.

      But I was thinking of you while reading this, Timothy. I can’t imagine you not liking it…unless you’ve already covered this field in other books.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        That wouldn’t stop me. I already have several books on the science history relating to the chemical elements and the Periodic Table (including one which finally enabled me to locate Ytterby on a map), after all. But the review was in the magazine, not NRO.

        Addendum: Looking for it, I can’t seem to find the review in the 2 most recent issues, nor in the latest Washington Times or The Week, or on NRO. All I can say reliably, then, is that I definitely read the review recently somewhere. It may have been an on-line review linked from HotAir, in which case it’s no longer accessible to me.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Okay, thanks for checking. I Googled for it and couldn’t find it either. I always enjoy reading an erudite (if sometimes stuffy) book or movie review, if only to get idea. But I tend more towards Mark Steyn than Alistair Cooke, for better or for worse. I haven’t read your latest book review yet. I’m still waiting for the right moment. I have to sort of parcel out mind space sometimes in order to give something the due attention it deserves.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    This is pretty cool. Henry Ford, a good friend of Edison, built this replica of Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. This is the upper floor of two huge stories. The bottom floor was, if I remember correctly, the machine shop.

    And he had a terrific multi-story library at his West Orange lab which was ten times bigger than Menlo Park.

    Here’s a Google map view of his Orange Park lab. I don’t know if the tan building across the street is prt of that or not.

  3. Rosalys says:

    If you are ever in RI with some time on your hands you might find a visit to The New England Museum of Wireless and Steam a treat.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Oh, that sounds most excellent, Rosalys. Thanks. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be in that area, but that’s good to know.

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