EMPIRES OF LIGHT: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World

Jill Jonnes, Author . Random $29.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-375-50739-7

Jonnes, a historian at Johns Hopkins (We're Still Here; Hep-Cats, Narcs and Pipe Dreams), details the rise and fall of the three visionaries who harnessed electricity, while also offering a critique of corporate greed. Her tale emphasizes the "War of the Electric Currents," in which Thomas Edison sought to defend the primacy of his direct current electrical system against George Westinghouse's higher-voltage and more broadly applicable alternating current system. Nikola Tesla, the somewhat kooky Serbian genius (and former Edison man), joined the fray on Westinghouse's side with his AC induction motor. Jonnes serves up plenty of color in an engaging and relaxed style, detailing how Edison capitalized on the "deaths by wire," or accidental electrocutions, from the AC system, sensationalized in the newspapers of the time. As she shows, Edison's "holy war" led to Westinghouse's AC being used in the first prison execution by electric chair, in 1890—which proved considerably more grisly and less humane than originally billed. For Jonnes, this history culminates neatly in a rather trite moral lesson: that corporate greed is bad. She contrasts it with the three public-minded men sketched here, who embody what Jonnes believes capitalism ought to be. Edison wanted only "the perfect workshop"; Westinghouse was interested "in helping the world" and giving his workers disability benefits; Tesla wanted to "liberate the world from drudgery." Jonnes's titans loom as monumentally as the allegorical Good Capitalists in an Ayn Rand melodrama. For those who view history as less tidy, this may strain the patience at times. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW. (On sale Aug. 19)

FYI:Much of this story was covered, with more emphasis on the first execution by electric chair, in Richard Moran's Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair, published last October.

Reviewed on: 05/05/2003
Release date: 08/01/2003
Genre: Nonfiction
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