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BOOK REPORT for The Electric War: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Light the World by Mike Winchell

Cover Story: The Sexy Men of Science
Drinking Buddy: Meet Me at the Club
Testosterone Level: I Got the Power
Talky Talk: The Gilded Age
Bonus Factors: Edison and Tesla
Bromance Status: Research Partner

Cover Story: The Sexy Men of Science

Bet you didn’t know Edison had the looks back in the day. They wisely put Westinghouse on the back cover.

I’m not sure how exciting that title would be to young readers.

The Deal:

It’s the 1880s. The world’s scientists are attempting to harness this strange new force called electricity. At the forefront of the race is Thomas ‘Don’t F*** With Me’ Edison. New on the scene is Serbian wonderboy Nikola Tesla. And then there’s businessman George Westinghouse, Mr. Alternative (current). These three men are determined to make electric power safe, cheap, and abundant for the American consumer.

Just kidding. They wanted to make a fast buck, and didn’t care if people were killed accidentally. Or on purpose.

Drinking Buddy: Meet Me at the Club

I can picture myself in one of those 19th century clubs, smoking cigars and drinking port with these geniuses and finaceers, discussing the happenings about the nation. I could tell them that someday, their names would grace a power company, a car company, and a refrigerator (I guess this is why no one remembers Marconi).

Honestly, I think Tesla is the only one who I’d like to know socially, and he was kind of a misanthrope.

Testosterone Level: I Got the Power

This book was a bit slow in parts, concentrating on the business and technology side of the conflict. Of course, this was the 19th century and electricity was a new thing. There were a lot of unfortunates who died when touching a live wire or dynamo.

And then there was William Kemmler. Kemmler hacked his wife up with an ax and was sentenced to die. But for the first time in American history people were seriously considering the rights of criminals, and hanging was falling out of fashion as barbaric. When one of Edison’s flunkies invented a machine that could kill a dog with one zap, the authorities thought they’d found a humane, scientific way to end a life. It was either that or a deliberate morphine overdose, and doctors, who were enjoying the new hypodermic syringe, didn’t want the invention tainted as an execution device.

When Edison was asked to weigh in, he enthusiastically approved the new electric chair, especially because it used an alternating current. You see, Edison like his currents like his attitude: direct. Westinghouse and Tesla knew alternating current was the way to go. Edison suggested that the new method of execution to be named ‘Westinghousing’, to commemorate AC’s instantly deadly nature.

Kemmler the murderer became the first person to die by deliberate electrocution. He was declared dead after only a few seconds. As the technicians congratulated themselves…someone noticed he was still breathing. The warden called for another jolt. But the dynamos had been shut off and would take a while to fire up again. And then Kessler started to groan…

It’s hard to say whether Edison or Westinghouse won that debate.

Later, Tesla allowed 250,000 volts to be passed through his body in a public display, just to prove how safe AC was. Electricians, they’re all nuts.

Talky Talk: The Gilded Age

It was fun to read about the early days of electrification, and how the urban power plant forever changed the landscape of the world. Edison and Tesla were an interesting pair, both worthy of their own biography.

That being said, the author did have some irritating habits. For a nonfiction book, he describes scenes that no one could have witnessed, repeatedly having the characters finger their muttonchops, their handlebar mustache, or their center part. He also overuses the tumbling dominoes metaphor, and ‘repeatedly’ uses an ‘annoying’ literary ‘device.’ He also mentioned that Edison once had a lab just blocks from ‘Where the World Trade Center now stands.” WTF?

This is a good, if somewhat dry account of interesting times and interesting people, and a good jumping off point for further reading.

Bonus Factors: Edison and Tesla

We all know about Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, the phonograph, the movie camera, etc. He had a mind decades ahead of his time. The night he came up with the idea for the phonograph, he built a functioning prototype. By the next night he’d worked out the bugs, and had something to show the world after a month. He’d put in eighteen-hour days at his New Jersey lab. He was a bastard of a businessman, and refused to admit when he was wrong. The book mentions how Edison proposed installing a foghorn like devices in the newly erected Statue of Liberty to blast messages out across the harbor. I’m glad he was overruled on that one.

Tesla, long forgotten by history, has recently emerged as a mind to rival Edison’s. He unfortunately had no head for business. When Edison promised him $50,000 to solve a problem with his dynamos, Tesla labored at the task until completed. Then, when he asked about his payment, Edison claimed he’d been joking. Tesla quit, and for a while was reduced to digging ditches. Westinghouse then hired him, and the royalties from Tesla’s many patents almost made him a rich man. But when Westinghouse’s company was having financial difficulties, Tesla voluntarily gave up his patent rights, just to insure that Westinghouse could continue to promote AC. Tesla then attempted to build one of the first radio towers, but lost funding. Guglielmo Marconi stole Tesla’s ideas and was hailed as the father of radio. The courts eventually named Tesla as radio’s true inventor in 1943, the year he died alone in a hotel room, mourned only by the pigeons he loved.

This book concentrates on the rivalry of these two great men. But it also tends to focus on their cut and dry business dealings, rather than their interesting personal lives. For instance, Edison had to take out a restraining order on his son, Thomas, Jr, who would slap the Edison name on any quack cure or fraudulent technology to make a quick buck. When a newspaper printed an April Fool’s Day article that the senior Edison had created a machine that created food out of soil, people had no trouble believing it. And there are those who believe that Edison’s last invention was the necrophone, a device for communicating with the dead.

Tesla, too, had an interesting personality. Considered by many to be both too brilliant and too strange to be fully human, some postulated that he was actually an alien from Venus. He was rumored to have created a death ray that could shoot planes out of the sky. Or was it a rumor? Upon his death, the government confiscated his notes, which were never made public. One has to wonder.

Bromance Status: Research Partner

Not a book I’d read again, but it whetted my interest. This is part of a series on the Gilded Age, so I’m anxious to see who they write about next. Henry Ford? J.P. Morgan? Emma Goldman?

Literary Matchmaking:

  

• For another biography of a Gilded Age figure, read Robert W. Merry’s biography of President McKinley.

• If you’re interested in what the desperately poor people in American were up to at the time, Damnation Island by Stacy Horn might be more your speed.

• For the next generation of inventors, read about the women who helped lay the groundwork for nuclear physics in Radioactive!

FTC Full Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, but no money, even though Edison implied I’d be paid.