Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist Ernest Freeberg discusses his latest work, The Age of Edison, and explains how Thomas Edison’s lightbulb illuminated class lines in American society.
Zola: Has there been an innovation in our lifetime that can even remotely compare with electric light?
Ernest Freeberg: Having just gotten off a plane, I’d have to say that the revolution in transportation technology that also began in the 19th century has had a similar effect—electric light pushed back barriers of time imposed by the cycle of day and night, and cars and planes drastically altered our relationship to space. To that we’d have to add the revolution in our power to communicate across space, another legacy of the late 19th century explosion of technological creativity. So artificial light has company, but in many ways artificial light is so pervasive, and so much engineered into the background of our lives, that it may be the biggest invention we hardly notice.
Zola: Dozens and dozens of inventors were vying with Edison to create the first economically viable electric light, and some of them did initially beat him to it—lighting whole towns and portions of cities before he ever got that far. What was it about Edison as a person that allowed him to jump so far ahead of the rest of the competition?
EF: The inventors of the arc light beat him to it by some years, though we have long forgotten Charles Brush, the Cleveland inventor who figured out how to light vast swaths of the outdoors with his powerful lights. The key elements of incandescent lighting—the vacuum bulb, the carbon filament, and the dynamo to provide a steady source of current—were well known. What Edison did was bring to bear a new style of invention, an early version of what we now call corporate research and development. Drawing on the deep pockets of people like JP Morgan, he hired a staff that brought a range of technical and scientific expertise, all working in service to Edison’s intense drive to create. Edison won that race, at least as far as the government patent office finally decided, but he lost the war; the system of research and development moved within a decade to create systems that replaced Edison’s, most notably by adopting AC instead of DC power for distribution. He left the lighting business ten years after he did so much to start it.
Zola: What effect did being an American have on Edison’s success in the race for white light?
EF: In those years, Americans came to pride themselves on being a nation of inventors, and Edison was often hailed as the great example of American ingenuity. He entered the electric field as a young man in the telegraph business, and like many at the time, this gave him access to machines at a time when they were evolving rapidly. He tinkered and experimented his way to early success in that field, and like many Americans at the time, he came to see the pursuit of a patent as the path to riches and fame.
Zola: How did electric light further define the lines between rich and poor in the U.S.?
EF: For decades home wiring was something that the rich, and then the middle class, enjoyed, while gas and kerosene remained “the poor man’s light.” But in cities and towns, everyone enjoyed access to the benefits of electric light early on—in the workplace, where it made the environment cleaner and safer, and even better, after hours when electricity quickly became a central part of nightlife, woven into every way that Americans knew how to have fun.
So the better neighborhoods had electrified homes and streetlamps that helped as crime fighters, but the truly stark line between the haves and the have-nots concerned a growing gulf between rural and urban America. No matter how well-off a rural person might have been, he or she knew that urban Americans were enjoying an electrified future, while they remained stuck in a dim past. That did not change much until the federal government stepped in with the Rural Electrification program of the New Deal, a time when the government declared that access to electricity was no longer going to be a luxury for some, but a democratic right and a necessity of modern living.
Zola: Is there something that our current technology producers can learn from Edison?
EF: While Edison was no great scientist, and many knew more about electricity than he did, he had a great ability to think systematically, to recognize and work through all the various technical challenges he faced when introducing a new technology to the market. And his story shows that invention is more than a great idea—it has to be something that survives in a brutally competitive marketplace, and that involves not just unleashing an idea into the world but mastering the challenges of manufacturing, financing, and marketing. Edison made many inventions and won more patents than any American. The few we remember involved years of toil on his part before they paid off.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.