New Maine Times Book Review: The Age of Edison

Posted Wednesday, July 24, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: The Age of Edison
By Ernest Freeberg.
Penguin Press, 2013.
368 pages, $27.95.
ISBN 978-1-59420-426-5.
Reviewed by William D. Bushnell
Americans take an awful lot for granted, including the electric light bulb.  When the light bulb is on we don’t even think about it, but when it goes out, we howl with indignation over the inconvenience of sudden darkness.
In the early 1880s, however, the development of the incandescent light bulb was “one of the signal achievements of our technological age,” according to historian Ernest Freeberg.  Thomas Edison and thousands of other American inventors sparked a nationwide wave of inventive electric light genius that dramatically altered every aspect of American society – and all from the simple electric light bulb.
THE AGE OF EDISON is Freeberg’s fascinating history of Thomas Edison, the creation and development of the incandescent light bulb, and the visionary American inventors who ultimately created the electrical power grid that powers the nation.  Freeberg is a former journalist for Maine Public Radio.  His clever and insightful book is part of Penguin Press’s award-winning “Penguin History of American Life” series.
As part biography, part scientific explanation, and part social commentary, this smart story explores how American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) improved the efficiency of the incandescent light bulb in the 1880s, and how he also invented a unique system of electricity-generating dynamos, wiring, switches, fixtures, and underground conduits to power whole cities and towns, illuminating homes, factories, farms, rural and urban.
Surprisingly, Freeberg reveals that Edison did not invent the incandescent light bulb.  Both arc light bulbs and incandescent light bulbs had already been invented by 1879, but Edison’s inventive work perfected the incandescent light bulb, and of course, his name is most often associated with the electric light.

Freeberg also wisely includes the contributions of other American inventors, some as Edison’s associates, others as his rivals, the thousands whose contributions, large and small, added to the improvement and expansion of electric light use in industry, business, medicine, crime prevention, recreation and leisure, and government as “a tool of civic improvement and social reform.”

He vividly describes the competitive nature of inventors and businessmen, and the ruthless, cutthroat measures (and lawsuits) they used to outsmart and outperform each other in the race to capture markets from the monopolies of the combative gas industry.  He also tells how electric companies were initially not regulated at all, resulting in terribly destructive fires and deadly electrical accidents killing linesmen and unwary citizens.

Intriguing anecdotes describe how cities and towns competed to have the first electric lights, then the biggest electrical attractions, and how no town wanted to be the last one still using gas or oil lamps.  From the 1880s to the 1920s, electric lights captured the imagination and popularity of a population that wanted a clean, safe, and cheap alternative to gas lighting.

Freeberg goes on to tell how tycoon J.P. Morgan started the General Electric Corporation (which ultimately controlled ninety percent of all electrical system manufacturing), how the inventor of the machinegun, Maine’s own Hiram Maxim, also invented an incandescent light bulb, how Andrew Hickenlooper, the head of the American Gas Association, became the implacable enemy of the electric light, and how the inventor of Kellogg’s corn flake cereal promoted the health benefits of “light therapeutics” at his luxurious spas.

Learn too why the town of Newton, Massachusetts initially refused to install electric lighting, how slick shysters and quacks used electric light to scam a gullible and naïve public, how forward-thinking entrepreneurs made millions of dollars in the electric light business, how and why national safety standards were adopted, how the famous Underwriters Laboratory (UL approved) became the champion of consumer product safety, and how an Arctic explorer used a wind-powered electric light on a North Pole expedition in 1893.

This is amazing history, well told with satisfying illumination.

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