The late 19th century was a period of explosive technological creativity, but arguably the most important invention of all was Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb. Unveiled in his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory in 1879, the light bulb overwhelmed the American public with the sense of the birth of a new age. More than any other invention, the electric light marked the arrival of modernity.
The light bulb became a catalyst for the nation’s transformation from a rural to an urban-dominated culture. City streetlights defined zones between rich and poor, and the electrical grid sharpened the line between town and country. "Bright lights" meant "big city". Like moths to a flame, millions of Americans migrated to urban centers in these decades, leaving behind the shadow of candle and kerosene lamp in favor of the exciting brilliance of the urban streetscape.
The Age of Edison places the story of Edison’s invention in the context of a technological revolution that transformed America and Europe in these decades. Edison and his fellow inventors emerged from a culture shaped by broad public education, a lively popular press that took an interest in science and technology, and an American patent system that encouraged innovation and democratized the benefits of invention. And in the end, as Freeberg shows, Edison's greatest invention was not any single technology, but rather his reinvention of the process itself. At Menlo Park he gathered the combination of capital, scientific training, and engineering skill that would evolve into the modern research and development laboratory. His revolutionary electrical grid not only broke the stronghold of gas companies, but also ushered in an era when strong, clear light could become accessible to everyone.
In The Age of Edison, Freeberg weaves a narrative that reaches from Coney Island and Broadway to the tiniest towns of rural America, tracing the progress of electric light through the reactions of everyone who saw it. It is a quintessentially American story of ingenuity, ambition, and possibility, in which the greater forces of progress and change are made visible by one of our most humble and ubiquitous objects.
©2013 Ernest Freeberg (P)2013 Gildan Media LLC
"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)
I read most of this book, and it was more of the business of competition, rather than the challenge of discovery. While I understand the need to establish why gas-lighting is bad, arc-lighting wasn't any good, the amount of time spent on both of those and the idea that it was simply free-trade financiers who got Edison to "win," is really not the real story I was looking for. I don't think I learned anything about Edison.
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