Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Age of Edison by Ernest Freeburg

For those of us who can remember a time not so long ago when we didn’t have telephones (computers really) in our pockets and the Internet was something few were connected to, even of those few who had computers in their homes, the current state of communication technology can seem revolutionary. This is tame compared to the changes wrought by technology that seems commonplace to us now. In The Age of Edison, Ernest Freeburg describes the amazing changes brought about in the 50 years following the introduction of electric lighting.

Though Thomas Edison is a huge figure in electric lighting, especially in the United States, Freeburg is careful to avoid the myth of the solitary inventor bringing an idea out of thin air. Many people were working on electric lighting.  Edison’s incandescent bulb had advantages over other lights, especially because he conceived of a complete lighting system with power sources, distribution and controls in addition to lamps. There were predecessors in the field, so Edison was working in a social context of seeking to provide superior lighting.

These competitors were not only other electric light inventors, but also older technologies, especially gas. Because electric power did not reach rural areas until the 1930s, much older artificial lights, like kerosene lamps, persisted even as electric lights became common in middle-class urban homes.

The first customers of electric lights were not homeowners, but businesses and cities who were already customers of lighting systems. These lights transformed cities, which various economic forces were causing to grow. From public lighting, electric systems were adapted to retail businesses, arts, entertainment, and science.

The early electric lighting market was competitive, unregulated, and wild. Electrocutions and fires were too common and widely publicized. Light companies were forced to improve safety by a political movement that supported municipal government control and ownership, and insurance company interests. This led to electric codes, the founding of the Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL) in 1893, college programs in electrical engineering, and the unionization of electrical workers.

Commercial interests dominated the early development of electric lighting. This was not the only reason electric lights had critics, but it was a significant reason. Intellectuals criticized the unartistic randomness of commercial messages seeking outshine each other. They were not especially successful in curbing electric lights, but the industry began to mature in this context and develop more attractive, effective and efficient lighting systems that were adapted to uses in homes and businesses.

Freeburg wraps up with Henry Ford’s 1929 jubilee of the invention of the incandescent electric lamp. In 50 years, the invention transformed almost every part of American life, especially urban life that was quickly becoming more common as people left farms for opportunities in cities. One of the telling things is that the event was broadcast on radio. In 1879, people huddled around candles and lanterns if they had to have light when the sun went down, but well within the span of a lifetime electric lights became dominant and electric appliances were common enough that radios were in homes and many were able to participate in a distant celebration of a transformative technology. It is hard to imagine how amazing these changes were to the people who experienced them.

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Freeburg, Ernest. The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America. New York: Penguin, 2013.