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Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World Paperback – October 12, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0375758843 ISBN-10: 0375758844 Edition: 9.12.2004
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Editorial Reviews Review

Jill Jonnes's compelling Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World offers a multi-sided tale of America's turn-of-the-20th-century quest for cheap, reliable electrical power. Along the way, the book profiles key personalities in both the science and industry of electrification and dramatizes the transformation of American society that accompanied the technological revolution. As her sub-title suggests, Jonnes's focus is on the three great personalities behind the building of the electricity industry. But, as she makes clear, the electrification of America was much more than a pathbreaking scientific quest. The genius of such poet-scientists as Nikola Tesla depended on the more finely tuned business skills of George Westinghouse and the towering capital of J.P. Morgan to achieve actualization. And even Thomas Edison and Westinghouse--innovative industrial combatants in the war between AC and DC current--were victims of the far more powerful and conservative financial forces of Wall Street. Indeed, for Jonnes, the story of electricity is as much about the legions of patent attorneys and bankers who controlled the flow of industry as it is about the circulation of current. Her sophisticated portrait of Gilded Age science, business, and society brings new light to the forces that underlie technological revolutions. As she reveals, it is not so much the great public men of science who directed the destiny of America's eventual empire of light; rather, the path was solidified by those men behind the scenes who were wise enough (and perhaps ruthless enough) to impose their legal, financial, and political dominance onto the scientific innovation--a valuable message for all eras. --Patrick O’Kelley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; 9.12.2004 edition (October 12, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375758844
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375758843
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (105 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #43,845 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

84 of 93 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on November 8, 2003
Format: Hardcover
PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE POOR REVIEW FROM johnjones2! I will base my review of this book based on his ridiculous 2 star review. I have been an Electrical Engineer since the mid-1980s. I enjoyed this book tremendously! This is a book that deals with the history of the THREE PRIMARY men who began the war of AC vs. DC electric currents. They are Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla.
Apparently reviewer johnjones2 does not know his history. Charles Proteus Steinmetz never worked for Westinghouse; he worked for GE (that's common knowledge). He didn't join the GE staff until 1893, which was the year of the Colombian Exposition in Chicago. The war of electric currents was well under way before Steinmetz ever joined the GE staff. As you'll learn in this book (and others), the Colombian Exposition was a major battle ground for the war of electric currents. Steinmetz was an outstanding electrical engineer who later worked (for GE) to help optimize the AC motor by solving hysteresis issues. It was TESLA'S (who began working for Westinghouse in 1888 after a short stint with Edison), NOT Steinmetz's, ALL-IMPORTANT PATENTS that were needed to get the AC business going. That's the way business works! This book is about how the AC / DC war began and how AC proved to be the better technology (that's why our homes are now wired for AC). It's not about how AC systems were later perfected.
Am I bothered that the author didn't mention Steinmetz - heck no. There are many other engineers who have worked on AC systems to make them better and more efficient, did I expect all of them to be mentioned in this book as well - again, heck no! For reviewer johnjones2 to say that the author had ulterior motives for leaving out Steinmetz is completely hilarious!
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Paul Eckler on February 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Jonnes gives us a look at the story of electrification from Edison's discovery of the incandescent light to completion of the Niagara Falls hydroelectric generating station (using Westinghouse equipment based on Tesla's AC patents). She begins with an overview of what was known about electricity-the relationship between electricity and magnetism, discovered by Michael Faraday, and the development of electromagnets by Joseph Henry. Development of practical generators in the 1870s, was soon followed by the first arc lights, but they were cumbersome and too bright for home use. Edison took up the challenge to develop an electric light suitable for home use in 1878, completed in 1879, and installed in New York City in 1882.

Edison firmly believed in his DC power system, but it was poorly suited to transmitting power long distances. Once AC transformers were invented, in 1885, George Westinghouse realized that AC was the more practical system. He licensed Tesla's patents for AC generator and motor and began installing systems. A major battle ensued with Edison promoting DC and charging that AC was unsafe. That resulted in the adoption of the AC powered electric chair as a means of execution. Edison General Electric and Westinghouse found themselves in direct competition many times.

Edison was a darling of the media. His side of the story has been told many times. Westinghouse was personable, but far less open to the press. No biographies have appeared since 1926. Tesla was a frequent publisher, gave numerous demonstrations especially at technical meetings. His eccentric nature leads to some treatments as a man of mystery.

The detailed treatment of the Niagara Power project is much appreciated. This was the first major hydroelectric project in the US.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Duff HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on January 29, 2005
Format: Hardcover
What does one do when they are on a red-eye flight for six hours and can't sleep? They read! The target of my insomnia for this trip was Empires Of Light - Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, And The Race To Electrify The World by Jill Jonnes. If this is a part of history you haven't ever been exposed to, it's a fascinating read...

Jonnes goes back to the mid-to-late 1800's and covers the story of how Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse transformed society with the power of electricity. Back then, the predominate form of lighting was the gaslight... dirty, smoky, and not very efficient. Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse all had ideas about electricity and how it might be packaged in a form that could illuminate the night and run motors. Edison was a proponent of Direct Current, or DC, power, while Westinghouse was pushing the Alternating Current, or AC, power type. Since we obviously now have an AC power grid worldwide, you can tell who won the war over the long term. But in the beginning, things were far from settled. DC is a much safer power source, but it can not travel very far. As a result, power stations had to be built all over a city to provide the necessary electricity to that area. On the other hand, AC can travel great distances and is much more efficient, but it can be much more dangerous and deadly. It was this safety issue that led to some of the more "memorable" events of the time, like Edison pushing AC power for an electric chair to kill someone, so that AC would be associated in the public mind as dangerous. While Edison and Westinghouse were fighting things out on the lighting side, Tesla was a complete eccentric who wanted to invent the first AC powered motor (when it was thought that it couldn't be done).
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