By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton
“The Last Days of Night” is a work of historical fiction. Apart from the well-known actual people, events, and locales that figure into the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
here is a saying that truth is stranger than fiction. The story of the electrification of America borders on that. But when the historical skeleton is fleshed out with an interesting and very plausible story, fiction becomes both informative and entertaining. In the late 1800s, the idea that the “magic” of electricity could be harnessed for the public good and for profitability was a strong motivator. Thomas Edison is by now a consummate inventor, with a laboratory full of associates and patents to prove it. George Westinghouse specialized in production. The problem came when Westinghouse decided to manufacture light bulbs and Edison claimed patent infringement. That’s when the young lawyer, Paul Cravath, enters the picture. It is Paul’s narrative that carries the story forward.
Edison had a reputation of winning in the courtroom. He was not only suing the Westinghouse Corporation, but also all of the subsidiaries. If nothing else, it drained the finances and curbed the immediate competition. Edison’s control of the lightbulb was complete unless the competing bulb was substantially different from the registered patent. It was something that had proved impossible to this point.
And soon there was another front. Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant with a brilliant, inventive mind, introduced alternating current (AC), a much safer means of providing electricity. In addition, it had the benefit of sending current over long distances, which had proven to be a problem for direct current (DC). DC was being used by both Edison and Westinghouse. Once human contact was made with DC, it was impossible to get free, thus a brutal electrocution. After some negotiations, the Tesla DC patent was licensed to Westinghouse. Edison set about destroying the credibility of DC with a massive, negative publicity push.
The key to the spread of either system lay in its ability to light the night. So Paul Cravath had to find a way to win the lightbulb war while countering the false publicity. It was truly false publicity, because as would eventually be proven, AC was safer and more economical. The early publicity brought that into question, but eventually false claims were made that fell of their own weight. Meantime, Westinghouse was selling AC generators to small cities who were using them to electrify whole communities. The lightbulb war had to be solved, or Westinghouse would go bankrupt.
Nikola Tesla, a unique and interesting person, winds through the narrative, giving life to a genius of invention (namesake of the Tesla automobile). There are several other characters of note, including J.P. Morgan and Agnes Huntington. But the story revolves around Edison, Westinghouse and Paul Cravath. It is a case where reading historical fiction will let you visit an exciting time in our history. It’s an adventure that continues today as we look to electric cars, improved storage batteries and green power.
As an aside, every chapter starts with an insightful quote from an inventor/scientist. “America is a country of inventors and the greatest of inventors are the newspaper men” — Alexander Graham Bell. The claim of fake news is apparently not new.