Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Historical Novel and Vivid History Offer Two Views of the Era of Electrification

I just finished reading Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes, which navigates the development of electricity from a curiosity to a ubiquitous enabler of contemporary life. It begins with an 1882 encounter between Thomas Alva Edison and his patron J.P. Morgan and then flashes back to the foundational work of Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, and others, building a solid conceptual foundation for the non-technical reader. The book then focuses on the life and work of three men, the inventors Thomas Alva Edison and Nikola Tesla, and the entrepreneur George Westinghouse. It covers the development of incandescent lighting, the often bitter competition between advocates of AC and DC systems of power generation, the advent of electrically drives for manufacturing machinery, and plenty of Gilded Age social, cultural and business vignettes.

"Empires of Light" culminates with the large-scale development of hydroelectric power at Niagara Falls, New York. The adoption of AC power generation machines developed by Tesla marked the final victory of AC power generation and distribution, with which a central power generation station could server a much wide area than with DC. Empires is a vivid, gripping read, providing insight into the technical, economic, and social aspects of electrification, while also illuminating the lives of its pioneers.

A few years ago, I read City of Light by Lauren Belfer, a historical novel set in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York during the construction of the Niagara power station. The narrator is Louisa Barrett, an unmarried headmistress of a private school for girls who, by suppressing her desires and sorrows and applying her keen intuition, is able to operate within the world of men. The whirlwind of events includes environmental protests, concealment of a teenage pregnancy resulting from child abuse, a murder mystery, attempts at racial integration, an industrial accident at the Niagara construction site. All this and more transpires amid vivid scenes of Buffalo in its economic and cultural ascendancy.

While much of Louisa's life seems inviting, she is always on guard. She shrewdly courts the industrialists who fund the to which they send their daughters, while educating and developing her students so that they may make the most of the limited opportunities available to women a century ago. Underneath it all, she holds a heartbreaking secret, which she gradually reveals as the book unfolds.

Together, these two books paint a picture of a time of great progress and promise, but one in which women, African-Americans, and the working class were both excluded from opportunity and put at great personal risk. The books demonstrate capitalism--often aided by government--yields many innovations with broad benefits. However, left unchecked, it concentrates wealth and power to the detriment of the public good. Considering them together gave me a renewed appreciation of the importance of the legal protections that have since been enacted for women, workers and minority groups.

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