Today we largely undergo variations on a theme — faster, easier, cheaper. Those in the Gilded Age, however, witnessed mind-bending changes in communication, infrastructure, transportation and entertainment hardly imagined beforehand. Buildings soared into the sky, people talked over wires, and steam-engine trains linked a nation. “Men and women of the nineteenth century were the first to live in a world shaped by perpetual invention,” writes Ernest Freeberg, a professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee, in “The Age of Edison.” And if there is one person who stands out as a chief architect in that transformative era, it is Thomas Edison.
Edison is renowned for his wide range of inventions, from the stock ticker and phonograph to the motion picture camera. But to Freeberg, Edison’s greatest legacy was his contribution to incandescent lighting. He sees this as a linchpin of America’s rise in entrepreneurship.
We now take the availability of electric light, both public and private, for granted. Flip a switch, and our way is instantly illuminated. But back then, Freeberg writes, people were just realizing that “the light was creating them — changing their relationship to the natural world, shaping the rhythm of their days, and transforming their culture.”
“The Age of Edison” is not a detailed history of Edison’s role in the development of electric lighting but rather a grand overview of the invention’s sweeping repercussions on America’s soul. Digging deeply into archives and old newspapers, Freeberg takes us on a captivating intellectual adventure that offers long-forgotten stories of the birth pangs of the electrical age that are amusing, surprising and tragic.
It did not start with the incandescent bulb but rather with the carbon-arc, a harsh and intense light emitted as current leaps the gap between two carbon rods. This type of lighting was first used in large public spaces — train stations, department stores, factories. For a while in the 1880s, cities around America competed with one another to install the powerful arcs atop tall towers, bathing an entire town in a ghostly light at nighttime. But arc lights flickered and hummed, and were totally inappropriate for homes. For that setting, warmer and cozier incandescent light was the holy grail, the perfect replacement for smelly gaslights: no fumes, no flicker, no matches, no maintenance.
Despite the legend, Edison did not “invent” the light bulb. Others, such as Joseph Swan in England, had been working on the concept for years. What Edison brought to the table was the vision of a complete system: not just a reliable bulb but a central power station that could distribute electricity, powering the lights, to houses over many city blocks. He was the one who thought of the challenges of “safely burying his wires and delivering current at a reasonable cost across a wide area, with switches that allowed customers to turn their lamps on and off without disrupting the entire system,” Freeberg notes. Edison and his lab crew in Menlo Park, N.J., knew it would be a huge enterprise, and he was its greatest salesman.