Like the late Stephen Ambrose, historian Jill Jonnes paints her story on a broad canvas and populates it with titans. In her compelling new book, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World, she recounts how, within a fairly brief period, electricity grew from being a conjuror's novelty into a power source that rivaled coal and natural gas for market share. Thomas Alva Edison, the "wizard of Menlo Park" (New Jersey), and Nikola Tesla, the brilliant Serb engineer who emigrated to New York, were electricity's visionaries. George Westinghouse, the fair-minded industrialist from Pittsburgh, was the hardiest and most relentless implementer of the "new" energy source. While Edison had a head start over his competitors in scientific breakthroughs and Wall Street connections, he tended, according to Jonnes, to be close-minded to ideas he didn't originate or control. Tesla, on the other hand, was the pure or nearly pure scientist who cared far more about discoveries than their commercial applications. Having already made a fortune in railroads, the unflappable Westinghouse saw the spreading of electricity as both another profit center and a social good.
The field of battle between Edison and Tesla was whether electricity should be delivered and put to use as direct or alternating current. Edison preferred the former (since that was his metier), even though it could be transmitted for only relatively short distances and, thus, necessitated many power plants to serve even a fairly compact territory. Edison argued that it was safer than AC. Tesla would prove otherwise again and again, with Westinghouse taking his side of the fray. The argument became especially grisly when New York decided that hanging was too cruel a method for executing undesirables and that electricity might be a more humane push toward the exit. Edison's minions saw this as a priceless public relations opportunity. They said that since AC was so demonstrably dangerous anyway, it would be the ideal medium for the job. To prove their point, they called press conferences at which they electrocuted dogs, calves and even a horse, often at great pain to the animals. Edison, who had once declared himself opposed to capital punishment, testified in court on behalf of electrocution. The first such execution, which took place in 1890, was so botched that the victim, rather than being killed instantly and painlessly, was "roasted" alive.
Nevertheless, AC ultimately won the day. Westinghouse got the contract to illuminate the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The growing demand for electricity led to the harnessing of Niagara Falls for that purpose in 1895, another triumph in which Westinghouse participated. In the end, though, Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse all lost control of their companies and/or inventions to investors who had little patience for visionaries and risk-takers. Once electricity had proven itself, finance trumped romance. As it always does. "Electricity unleashed the Second Industrial Revolution," Jonnes concludes, "bestowing on man incredible gifts: the untold hours once lost to simple darkness, the even greater hours lost to drudging human labor, and the consequent freeing and flourishing of the human mind and imagination." Edward Morris is a freelance writer in Nashville.