Empires of Light

Updated: August 10, 2022

Historian Jill Jonnes portrays the last decades of the 19th century, when three visionary titans of America's Gilded Age - Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse - collided with the intent of creating a vast and powerful electrical empire.

Favorite quotes from the book:

“The keynote of [Edison's] work is commercial utility. He asks himself when a new idea is suggested, 'Will this be valuable from the industrial point of view? Will it do something important better than existing methods?'”

Edison could be equally rhapsodic about his aborning incandescent light bulb: “There will be neither blaze nor flame, no singeing or flickering; it will be whiter and steadier than any known lamp. It will give no obnoxious fumes nor smoke, will prove one of the healthiest lights possible, and will not blacken ceilings or furniture.” Of course, what Edison didn't mention about his wondrous new light was that it lasted only an hour or two. It was still far from commercially viable.

Tesla, rapturously gestured to his simple designs in the dirt and declared to Szigety, “Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it sublime? Isn't it simple? I have solved the problem. Now I can die happy. But I must live, I must return to work and build the motor so I can give it to the world. No more will men be slaves to hard tasks. My motor will set them free, it will do the work of the world.”

Even the most cosmopolitan were puzzled by electricity. Unlike a steam engine, its power was obscure, invisible. Wrote one Frenchman, “We are not yet in the habit of observing machines that function without apparent cause. Their occult workings baffle us. The secret of their existence escapes us.”

“The meeting with Edison was a memorable event in my life,” Tesla later wrote. “I was amazed at this wonderful man who, without early advantages and scientific training, had accomplished so much. I had studied a dozen languages, delved in literature and art, and had spent my best years in libraries reading all sorts of stuff that fell into my hands, from Newton's 'Principia' to the novels of Paul de Kock, and felt that most of my life had been squandered. But it did not take long before I recognized that it was the best thing I could have done.”

Westinghouse was a great one for consulting others, “then he made up his own mind, and nothing milder than an earthquake could budge him. We have seen him sitting like a rock, serene, gentle, and unmoved when every member of the board of directors was against him. Whether he was determined or just obstinate depends upon your point of view.”

Tesla understood that many branded him a “visionary” for his deep belief that in time energy would be easily extracted from the universe around us. But he pointed out, “We are whirling through endless space with an inconceivable speed, all around us everything is spinning, everything is moving, everywhere is energy. There must be some way of availing ourselves of this energy more directly. Then, with the light obtained from the medium, with the power derived from it, with every form of energy obtained without effort, from the store ever inexhaustible, humanity will advance with giant strides. The mere contemplation of those magnificent possibilities expands our minds, strengthens our hopes and fills our hearts with supreme delight.”

I never think of the past. I go to sleep thinking only of what I am going to do tomorrow. With this constant forward thinking, Westinghouse squandered no mental energy on what might have been.

As Edison once said, “I always invent to obtain money to go on inventing.”

Who but Edison, after a huge and devastating fire at his West Orange laboratory in 1914, could say, “Oh shucks, it's all right. We've just got rid of a lot of old rubbish.”

Electricity allowed a greater regimentation of life, ripping away the natural rhythms of time and season. The quieting of work and home as the natural light disappeared no longer existed, nor did families gather about the hearth for heat and light. Men, women, and children retreated more and more into their comfortable and convenient homes or became more and more obliged to toil on in their well-lighted offices and factories.