Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World
This book was the story of the emergence of electricity in America, centered around the three most important characters in its nascent development: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla. These three, different in personality, world view, approach to science, and in so many other ways, brought America, and the world, electrical power. Everyone loved the book.
Early in the story, Christmas at J.P. Morgan’s home in lower Manhattan, people marveled at a home so beautifully lit. Imagine, not having to get home before the sun went down. The night would soon emerge as a social time. Electricity would usher in change in so many ways most people couldn’t begin to imagine.
While the book was about electricity, it was really about these three men. Edison brought us an improved telegraph, talking phonograph, and the incandescent light bulb. Edison was always out front promoting his latest invention, living on the leading edge of his discoveries. Edison incited people to try his inventions, either for lower cost (lighting less costly and less dangerous than natural gas), or for novelty (the talking phonograph). His method of discovery was broad: try anything and everything until something useful or profitable emerged. He was always highly leveraged, thus at the mercy of business partners and financiers, but fully engaged employing these financiers to promote his latest innovation (including Morgan).
George Westinghouse was more the engineer, understanding intricacies of real world applications and always thirsty for new ideas on accomplishing complex scientific riddles. Dinners at his mansion with top engineers, retiring from dinner to solve problems, was normal for Westinghouse. Westinghouse and Edison waged war through legal defense and attack application of their respective patents. Edison remains the American inventor with the most patents: 1,093. Westinghouse had over 300.
Finally, Nicola Tesla, the brilliant theorist, envisioned applications of electricity decades ahead of his time. He was the pure scientist, never taking time or effort to monetize his perspicacity in the field. His extravagant lifestyle comforted him throughout life, living at the finest hotel in town, eating the finest food prepared by the finest chefs, never needing to understand business. His work ethic and persistence worked well in America, soon capturing the attention of Edison, then Westinghouse. A Serbian immigrant began with static electricity and posited to transmitting into the sky - wireless distribution. Tesla’s building with all his research and study in inventions and papers was tragically consumed in a fire one evening; who knows what was in those thoughts. (Wireless transmission is now available, in small, local applications). Tesla, who arguably contributed more pure science to the race, held 111 patents and died poor.
The battle between Direct Current (Edison’s approach) and Alternating Current (Westinghouse’s approach) was epic. Bill questioned what if Edison got the Columbian World’s Fair contract? Or his patent wars prevailed? Would DC be delivered today by decentralized local power stations? Would electricity ever even have made it to so many in rural areas? Today, - equal access to the electrical grid is hugely regulated, as a utility, exactly to bring this marvel to all Americans, urban and rural. Furthermore, today’s power structure is decentralizing, in a broad shift from macro regional power generation to localized micro generation such as rooftop solar and windmills. We generally agreed that AC prevailed on its merits in that nascent period: long distance transmission for one, and Tesla’s greater contribution, efficient motors more impactful. Lighting was one thing; powering machines to do the work humans had done, that was the future.
Edison knew how much was at stake, and focused his public relations attack on the dangers of alternating current. At 60 cycles per minute, a human can be electrocuted at very low voltage. The workers killed by handling AC wires was only minor news. But what about Capital Punishment as a marketing tool? The discussion of the development of the Electric Chair confirmed every objection society has today about “Old Sparky”. Cruel and unusual indeed.
The decade or two when this great battle was raging for the future of American power also witnessed the emergence of engineering as the critical connection between science and business. The chapter on developing the Niagara power plant was another testament to engineering. Today, Buffalo is dealing with the externalities left behind after the factories left, evident at Love Canal. And yet, they’re back: Today data centers are populating Buffalo for cheap power and lots of cold water for cooling server farms.
Finally, a discussion of bringing electricity to the country, and to the world, can’t ignore the role played by the financial barons of the late 19th century, J.P. Morgan in particular. Here was a single man who, in the absence of a Federal Reserve, could literally save the country from financial collapse; ...for a price. Morgan’s (and others’) opportunism, foresight, and raw power, brought us electricity (and before that, railroads). The excesses also brought the country Teddy Roosevelt’s Trust busting at the turn of the century. Enough was enough said the people.
Would the progress have happened as quickly if not for these three central titans? Geoff argued “No”: Competition drove these men; they fully understood the impact electricity would on humankind. Michael Farrady had no other scientists as brilliant as he, earlier in the century; suppose he had had Westinghouse and Edison to drive him and Morgan to finance him? Their plans for developing useful applications and for financing the build-out drove them in an ever swifter race.
Before we conclude, we have to acknowledge that we gained a deeper understanding of how electricity works. Here's a primer:
High voltage AC not dangerous
Ever touched a 100 amp bus?
Pipe / hose diameter
Conductors: Copper, gold wire
How fast it’s coming out of the pipe
Power = Voltage X Current
Current = Voltage / Resistance (amps)
Other asides from our discussion:
A new movie The Current War, covers this story. It was a Harvey Weinstein movie so was delayed. But see a trailer and other details on Westinghouse's website.
Devil in the White City (linked below) is a novel based on the true story of a mass murderer lurking in Chicago as the World’s Fair was being constructed and attended. For a ground view of Chicago, including Frederick Law Olmstead’s landscapes, Edison’s and Westinghouse’s battles, and another familiar name which is revealed within the book’s later pages, read the book. It's a page turner.