When I was young, there was a section of the children’s area of our public library that featured a series of biographies ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Florence Nightingale to Booker T. Washington. I read them all.
And so I remember that I read all about how Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. That’s it. Nothing murky. He was responsible for those light bulbs that we use every day of our life to light up our world.
But was it really that simple? Of course not; nothing ever is. What is unarguably true is that he was the first person to hold a patent for the direct charge light bulb.
The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore, examines the invention of the light bulb, and the eventual replacement of gas lighting with electric lights in this entirely readable, eminently fascinating account of the legal battle waged between Edison and George Westinghouse, who had also invented a light bulb, but his used alternating current.
It’s hard to imagine that someone who cares about or understands science as little as I would enjoy this novel. Nevertheless, I loved this book. It will undoubtedly be among the top five books that I’ve read this year.
Not only could I not put it down, but I drove my husband (who studied engineering for a time in college) practically crazy with my unending did you knows.
Do you know the difference between direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC)? (He did.)
Did you know that they used alternating current (AC) the first time they used the electric chair, and it was a horrific and unimaginable failure? (He didn’t.)
Moore’s story begins in New York City in 1888. George Westinghouse hires a young, untested attorney named Paul Cravath to handle his literally billion-dollar case in which Thomas Edison is suing him over the simple question: who invented the light bulb.
Moore (who was the screenwriter for the wonderful movie The Imitation Game) uses real characters and real situations to tell an absolutely riveting story about the battle, which takes the young Cravath into the heights of society in New York City in the late 19th Century. His portrayals of the key figures – Edison, Westinghouse, Cravath, Nikola Tesla – paint a different picture from what I read in those little biographies as a child. They fought a seemingly unending battle over power – both electrical power and social power.
Don’t let the fact that this is a novel about the light bulb stop you from reading this book. It is an absolutely glorious story that involves corruption, romance, intrigue, and rollicking fun.
I have scarcely enjoyed a novel quite as much.