cover image The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America

The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America

Ernest Freeberg. Penguin Press, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-59420-426-5

In his illuminating newest, Freeberg, a professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee, examines the social, technological, and political context surrounding the development of the electric light bulb and its transformative effects on American society. Though numerous early thinkers and innovators drove the technology to fruition, Freeberg (Democracy’s Prisoner) demonstrates that it was Thomas Edison who, by founding the Edison Electric Light Company, established a modern industrial approach that synthesized scientific collaboration, entrepreneurship, and salesmanship in the development of a “complete lighting system” that could power an “incandescent bulb of superior design.” In effect, he democratized light. The excitement spread quickly, but Americans were torn: some celebrated while others reviled the undeniable ways in which their work and leisure life would be dramatically changed. Though most saw this innovation as a sign of human advancement and enlightenment, electric lighting was criticized by gas companies (for obvious reasons), labor groups, and cultural figures that saw in the ubiquity of illumination a frightful, unnatural way of life. Even though he would live to see his own innovations and patents made exponentially more productive and efficient, the “Wizard of Menlo Park” came to embody “a vanishing heroic age of invention” that “laid the foundation of modern America.” Illus. (Feb. 21)