Shining Light on Electricity

The Buffalo News
Sunday, August 17, 2003


Empires of Light
By Jill Jonnes
Random House
415 pages, $27.95

Given only the basic high school history of electricity -- a noble line drawn from Benjamin Franklin's kite and key to Thomas Edison's incandescent bulb -- a good number of us may be startled to learn some of its lesser-known characters: a Buffalo axe murderer, a Serbian genius deathly afraid of pearls on women, and a score of dogs, ranging from cute puppies to mangy mongrels, that came to a sizzling end in Edison's laboratories.

All this and much, much more is packed into Jill Jonnes' "Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World," an exhaustive look at one of the Gilded Age's fiercest contests, the "War of the Electric Currents." Jonnes' tale occasionally ventures into college lecture territory when searching too far afield for context or overemphasizing key points, but it's a fascinating introduction for neophytes, and of particular interest to those in Buffalo, the aptly self-named City of Light.

"Empires" rises and falls on its central conceit, that the world's electrical prospects were shaped by three fascinating characters. There's Edison, the famous folksy inventor who saw incandescent lighting as his entry to industrial fortunes; George Westinghouse, the charming entrepreneur who played only to win; and Nikola Tesla, the inventor who helped define "eccentric" and possessed an almost wizardly understanding of the earth's unseen forces.

After a mildly interesting introduction and overly extensive history of electrical discoveries, we're introduced to Edison at about page 50. You can almost hear the hum of microfilm projectors as Jonnes delves deep into the ramshackle labs of industrial towns, the manure-lined streets of late 19th-century New York, and rather obsessive accounts of nearly every person's facial hair arrangements along the way. Her thumbnail of Edison is actually one of the lesser feats of archival wizardry in the book:

"In an age of great formality, when gentlemen wore fine Prince Albert suits, a proper stiff collar and cravat, and a shiny silk top hat when venturing forth in public, Edison preferred to play the unschooled hick at Menlo Park, affecting rumpled blue flannel workman's suits, silk neckerchiefs, a simple cloth skullcap, and solid boots. In truth, Edison was a voracious and penetrating reader, hungry for knowledge and possessing an amazing memory. His early deafness only made him more likely to lose himself in a book."

So fierce was the competition between Edison's direct current and Westinghouse's alternating current that, at around page 150, one can't help but hold contempt for Edison, the archetypal hero of down-home inventors, as he forgoes personal ethics to push New York state toward adopting electrocution -- using Westinghouse generators, of course -- and has his lackeys pay children a quarter for every dog they bring to his labs for "testing."

Once you warm to the irresistible charms of Tesla, and follow South Division Street resident William Kemmler from drunken murder to horrific electrocution, you're hooked. Jonnes -- who did extensive local research with the Niagara Falls Public Library, Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society, Niagara Power and Niagara Mohawk -- also paints a vivid picture of the triumphant moment when the Falls first lit up the Queen City (and is blurbed on the book's jacket by "City of Light" author Lauren Belfer).

Tesla, at that time, addressed a high-spirited crowd in Buffalo's Ellicott Club with his perfect, heavily accented English: "Let me wish that in no time distant your city will be a worthy neighbor of the great cataract which is one of the great wonders in nature."

Jonnes takes a long time making her way through that period, when the air was literally sparking with promise, but it's ultimately worth the investment in "Empire."

Kevin Purdy is a News financial reporter.