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Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World (Paperback)

By: Jill Jonnes


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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

Short Desription

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, three brilliant and visionary titans of America’s Gilded Age—Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse—battled bitterly as each vied to create a vast and powerful electrical empire. In Empires of Light, historian Jill Jonnes portrays this extraordinary trio and their riveting and ruthless world of cutting-edge science, invention, intrigue, money, death, and hard-eyed Wall Street millionaires. At the heart of the story are Thomas Alva Edison, the nation’s most famous and folksy inventor, creator of the incandescent light bulb and mastermind of the world’s first direct current electrical light networks; the Serbian wizard of invention Nikola Tesla, elegant, highly eccentric, a dreamer who revolutionized the generation and delivery of electricity; and the charismatic George Westinghouse, Pittsburgh inventor and tough corporate entrepreneur, an industrial idealist who in the era of gaslight imagined a world powered by cheap and plentiful electricity and worked heart and soul to create it.

Edison struggled to introduce his radical new direct current (DC) technology into the hurly-burly of New York City as Tesla and Westinghouse challenged his dominance with their alternating current (AC), thus setting the stage for one of the eeriest feuds in American corporate history, the War of the Electric Currents. The battlegrounds: Wall Street, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Niagara Falls, and, finally, the death chamber—Jonnes takes us on the tense walk down a prison hallway and into the sunlit room where William Kemmler, convicted ax murderer, became the first man to die in the electric chair.

Empires of Light is the gripping history of electricity, the “mysterious fluid,” and how the fateful collision of Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse left the world utterly transformed.


From the Hardcover edition.



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