Empires of Light : Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World
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.
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October 11, 2004
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Excerpt from Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes
"Morgan's House Was Lighted Up Last Night"
In the late spring of 1882, Thomas Alva Edison, world famous as the folksy genius who had invented the improved telegraph and telephone, the amazing talking phonograph, and the incandescent light bulb, would shamble in occasionally to the hushed, formal suites of Drexel, Morgan & Company at 23 Wall Street, an imposing white marble Renaissance palace of mammon. There in a glass-walled back office, J. Pierpont Morgan presided at an oversize rolltop desk. The autocratic senior partner wore a banker's black suit, starched snowy shirt, wing collar, and fine gray silk ascot. His expensive, ever-present Havana cigar made the air smoky, redolent of privilege and power. Morgan's investment firm was partially bankrolling Edison's fevered building of America's first incandescent electric lighting system in the crowded commercial blocks of lower Manhattan. When Edison visited Drexel, Morgan, the clean-shaven, still boyish inventor loved to disparage the office's gaslight globes as burning a "vile poison." But soon the gaslight would be gone, preempted by Edison's beloved clean electric light.
Edison, thirty-five, was already a celebrated figure in the downtown streets, recognizable in his signature slouch-brim hat or battered stovepipe, shabby shirt, bright neckerchief, and frayed black Prince Albert coat. He and his crews were logging dusty eighteen-hour shifts as they pushed to finish the far-behind-schedule Pearl Street Station generating plant and install (only at night) fourteen miles of just-below-the-street electrical conduits. All morning and afternoon pedestrians ebbed and flowed through the financial neighborhood, dark-suited men sporting shiny top hats or black bowlers, clutching their canes. "Bank messengers, with bags filled with coin, greenbacks, bills of exchange, bonds and stocks, hurry along," wrote one contemporary of hustling-bustling Wall Street, "keeping a firm grip upon their bags and eying each person they pass warily, office boys, telegraph boys with yellow envelopes containing messages from all quarters of the globe, dart here and there through the throng." These acolytes of the high-toned, handsome financial district shared the jammed nearby streets with horse-drawn trolleys, heavy delivery wagons, dog-drawn rag carts, noisy oyster sellers, and small boys hawking any one of the city's dozens of newspapers. Everywhere, with the weather warming up, the city's streets reeked of horse piss and dung left daily by the 150,000 horses pulling the city's trams, trucks, Broadway stages, and fancy rigs. At night, when Edison most liked to work, he could be found with his Irish crews laying trenches somewhere near Pearl Street, already dirty with grease and tar, or tinkering with the six jumbo dynamos installed up on the reinforced second floor.
That late spring and summer, Edison had occasion to confer with J. Pierpont on another small but important job. In his office, Morgan cultivated a renowned ferocity: the gruff, impatient bark, the famed glare that challenged visitors of any rank to intrude. Other wealthy men in this most hirsute of eras flaunted complex and flamboyant beards and mustachios, but the forty-five-year-old Morgan sported only a plain, trimmed mustache. J. Pierpont Morgan had been raised an old money gentleman, conservative and stern in manner and habits. But the America of the 1880s was changing rapidly, daring men and women to dream bold dreams, to grasp for great ventures and great wealth. Just a few blocks south, the Roeblings' magnificent East River Bridge was nearing completion after thirteen arduous years, a soaring engineering marvel of suspension, floating across the shimmering New York waters.