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The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (Penguin History American Life) Hardcover – February 21, 2013

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The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America (Penguin History American Life) + Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World + Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin History American Life
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (February 21, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594204268
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594204265
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #164,601 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

A history of electric light’s fledgling decades, Freeberg’s insightful work restores a range of primal social reactions to the new form of illumination. These are easily forgotten in the present, when power companies and sources of electrical generation are politically contentious. In the 1880s, banishing night with a light switch astounded multitudes, who thronged civic events and spectacular exhibitions to marvel at artificial day. Acknowledging Edison’s contemporary and continuing association with the electrical revolution, Freeberg at the outset corrects the impression, noting that arc lighting initially competed with Edison’s incandescent bulb but declined in popularity because of the comparative harshness of its glare. Recounting local incidents and accidents of various American cities’ introduction to electricity, Freeberg tracks its rapid departure from Edison’s workshop toward becoming a professional and corporate industry. Progressive critics arose who proposed its nationalization, while commentators catering to the consumer dwelt on refining the aesthetics of lighting in the home and in entertainment venues. Fans of the history of technology will revel in Freeberg’s discussion of the profound social effects of the humble light bulb. --Gilbert Taylor


"One of the many pleasures of Age of Edison, Ernest Freeberg's engaging history of the spread of electricity throughout the United States, is that he captures the excitement and wonder of those early days, when 'a machine that could create enough cheap and powerful light to hold the night at bay' promised 'liberation from one of the primordial limits imposed by nature on the human will'... Freeberg's thoughtful and thought-provoking book quietly suggests that, to properly distribute and control such a powerful force, commercial initiative and a sense of civic responsibility were equally essential."
Los Angeles Times

"Mr. Freeberg's broad research adds up to a vivid social history with parallels for today's technology innovators and for those who wish to increase their number. It underscores the point that the work of Edison and other pioneers of light took place in an unusual setting, a period in which American invention was remarkably active and fertile... The Age of Edison comes at a fitting time, the close of the era of the incandescent light. When the old stocks of incandescents run out, it may be the end of pleasant illumination at a cheap price—that is, until another Thomas Edison finds a way."
Wall Street Journal

Advance Praise for The Age of Edison:

"A dynamo of a book powered by an infectious enthusiasm for the can-do spirit of Edison and rival geniuses racing to turn night into day. Freeberg writes with verve and uncommon clarity, all the while deeply enriching our understanding of an age raring to embrace modernity."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day's Close: Night in Times Past

"Ernest Freeberg's fascinating account of the arrival and impact of electric lighting in America fills an important gap in the history of this subject. This well-written and insightful book should appeal both to scholars and lay readers, all of whom will learn much about the complex history of the adoption of this new technology."
—Paul Israel, author of Edison: A Life of Invention; General Editor, The Thomas Edison Papers

"Freeberg's deft social history explores a remarkable period in America's cultural and economic development. By understanding the post-Edison world we can see how nightlife really began; how our workdays grew considerably longer; and how the urban gloom was extinguished by the commerce of illumination."
—Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

More About the Author

Ernest Freeberg grew up in New England, attended Middlebury College, and worked as a reporter for Maine Public Radio. Now a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of Tennessee, he has published two award-winning books. The Education of Laura Bridgman won the Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association, a biennial prize for the best first book in any field of American history. His more recent Democracy's Prisoner was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist in biography, and won both the David Langum Award for Legal History and the Eli Oboler Award from the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Roundtable.
His 2013 book, Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, examines the social and cultural impact of electric light on American society in that invention's early decades.

Customer Reviews

This book is very well written and reads like a novel.
Carl Whisner
Freeberg brings this history to life with accuracy, fascinating detail, and good writing.
Well, that gap has been nicely filled by this fine book.
Donald Mitchell

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

41 of 43 people found the following review helpful By D. Graves TOP 1000 REVIEWER on February 22, 2013
Format: Hardcover
While I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about Edison and the miracles of Menlo Park, I felt - upon reading this book - rather ignorant of the import and impact the advent of electric light had on American society. Five years ago, here in New Hampshire, an ice storm knocked out power for eleven days; and eleven long, dimly lit nights. Even with the best of modern gas lamps, candles and flashlights, it was a different world without electric light. What the author here, Freeberg, does is walk us through the change in worlds Edison provided - out of the darkness and into the light.

What this excellent book details is not just the impact of the incandescent light bulb on individual lives but, more importantly, its transformative effect on society and America's place in the world. The focus of the Edison Electric Light Company was not in making light bulbs but in a "complete lighting system" - the grid: electric light for all. The author does a marvelous job in giving us a panoramic view of the myriad events and effects of Edison's revolution. It really is a fascinating read.

For example, there were many who fought against Edison in the belief that his light was 'unnatural', that it endangered family togetherness (families usually gathered around one oil lamp at night). And when cities became lighted at night on a grand scale, people in the dark distances stood and stared at what they considered a magnificent, otherworldly display. In the cities, crowds gathered when linemen worked, not in fascination of these men connecting wires but in the good chance that a lineman would suffer a spectacular death by electrocution, a rather common occurrence. On the positive side, American manufacturing output soared, with factories being able to add second and third shifts of production. There is so much more but this review has become a bit long. In conclusion, this is an excellent, engaging book on an important historical invention. Definitely five stars.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Terrence McGarty on March 7, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Age of Edison is a compelling tale of technological innovation and the machinations and creations of all those who participated. At the center is Edison, whose fame was a creation of what he accomplished, what he proclaimed, and what the Press found as good news copy, independent of the reality of what was truly happening. I live but a short distance from Edison’s last lab was in West Orange in New Jersey and it is now a National Parks site. Much of what Edison did is memorialized by the many labs, books, and remnants of his hundreds of “inventions”. Of course next to this National Landmark is the Edison battery factory which one may suppose is left in a state of total collapse because the cleanup of the site would be astronomical, but those factors are somewhat missing from the tale.

The book is exceptionally well written and it is really a tale of the electric light, with Edison cast as someone who comes and goes, and yet has a lasting influence. Like so many technological advances there is usually not one person, but many competing for the prize. The goal was clear, light, but the path uncertain. The author details the competition between the arc light and the incandescent light, the need for an infrastructure, and the problems of that infrastructure. Power lines grew, collided with humanity, and in urban areas were driven underground. However they remained to be smashed down during hurricane Sandy, almost 150 years after all of this began. Thus the power industry, unlike the electronics industry rapidly grew, and then froze, for almost a century. But this is a tale of the light bulb, perhaps the most significant driver of that industry.

The author opens with the inventing of the light bulb.
Read more ›
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Amelia Gremelspacher TOP 500 REVIEWER on February 26, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book is as much a story of commerce as it is of invention. Edison was not the first or the only person to develop the incandescent light bulb. But he was the first to understand the context of the invention. His goal, and achievement, was to build the power plant, grid, and finally the consumer of electricity. In this way, he won the battle to light America. But what is more interesting to me is the stage of innovation being set at the time of this book. People for the first time expected new technology. They were prepared for cycles of invention to change the context of lives over and over.

The writing in this book is accessible and clear. The author sets his premise clearly and backs it with the events of the age. I had not thought about the fact that electricity meant the industries of power production, power grid, and life style change. The idea that leisure for everyone now lay at city center after dark is not new, but is explicit in this book. The strength of this book is the gathering of the strings of change into a clear thesis.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Robert G. Rich, Jr. on July 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is mostly an account of the significant changes that electric light brought to the cities and society of the United States at the end of the 19th century. There are interesting facts that for me illuminated the importance to my parents (both born in the 19th century) of such things as the Chicago Exposition and the "worlds fairs," or the iconic nature of Coney Island, all of which, ablaze with light, dazzled a generation. However, despite marshalling considerable information, the book is not very well written or well organized and therefore somewhat boring to read. Despite Edison in the title, this is neither a biography nor a balanced discussion of his accomplishments. Furthermore the big technical and economic electricity issue of the time, pitting the option of alternating current power against direct current (Edison's choice) for large scale electrification, and such an internationally and scientifically prominent competitor of Edison as Nikola Tesla, are hardly mentioned. This was a choice of my local book club or I probably would have merely skimmed it. That should be sufficient for most interested readers.
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