Thomas Edison is widely remembered as the man who invented the light bulb. As with many singular events, there’s much more to the story, and a new book places the invention in the context of the time. In the mid-19th century the U.S. was in a period of intense technological creativity. Edison and a team of high-level assistants at his New Jersey laboratory benefited from a vibrant exchange of ideas among scientists in the U.S. and across the Atlantic. When Edison finally unveiled the incandescent light bulb in 1879, Americans witnessed the birth of a new age. Diane and her guest discuss how an invention we take for granted today transformed American life.
- Ernest Freeberg History professor at the University of Tennessee and author of "The Education of Laura Bridgman" and "Democracy's Prisoner."
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Excerpted from “The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America” by Ernest Freeberg. Copyright © 2013 by Ernest Freeberg. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press HC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The advent of electric light has been credited with ushering in our modern world. An award-winning writer and historian argues that Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb was the most significant invention in the nation's history. He argues it changed every aspect of American life. His new book is titled "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America." The author, Ernest Freeberg, joins me in the studio, and throughout the hour I'll look forward to hearing your questions, comments.
MS. DIANE REHMJoin us at 800-433-8850, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir. It's good to have you.
MR. ERNEST FREEBERGThank you very much. It's great to be here.
REHMTake us back and tell us about Edison's life before the incandescent light bulb.
FREEBERGWell, he matches our great ideal of the self-made person, who was -- did not do well in school, had only a few years of formal schooling, was skeptical about college education for the rest of his life, and he was a tinkerer. And he was -- he started out in the telegraph industry, which was the emerging electrical network. A lot of great inventors got their start in the -- in telegraphy. He dabbled -- he often got fired because he tried experiments and damaged things.
FREEBERGBut he came up with the first great invention, the ability to send messages both directions on a wire, which doubled the capacity immediately of the telegraph, and he translated that into the beginnings of his empire at Menlo Park in an invention factory. He wanted to devote all of his time to inventing.
REHMI think the extraordinary thing was that he had a collaborative effort going on.
REHMHe wasn't just working alone.
FREEBERGMany of said this, that really what was most important -- the most important invention that Edison made was the process of inventing, the modern process that we think of as research and development now. He understood the importance of raising large amounts of capital. He understood the importance of gathering a team of people who could do all sorts of things that he could not do. As much as he was skeptical about college, he knew enough to hire well-trained university-trained mathematicians and physicists to help him, as well as people who knew the technical skills who could, you know, glass blowers for example. You can't make a light bulb without an expert glass blower.
REHMAnd where did the money come from to create this laboratory, to hire these people?
FREEBERGWell, Edison had a complicated relationship with the big capitalists in his day. He got some minute from Western Union to get started because of his first big patents. And then he spent a lot of time working with JP Morgan, with the Vanderbilts. They financed a lot of his early experiments with electric light. They were not always -- it was a complicated partnership because they wanted a quick investment, and he said that this takes time.
REHMSo when he's 39 years old in 1879, somehow what happens? How does he come up with this idea? Is it his idea, or it is the collaborative process?
FREEBERGThis idea of electric light had been around since at least about 1810. A British scientist, Sir Humphrey Davey, demonstrated the possibility of incandescent light, but it was enormously difficult and expensive to produce. It was more of a science experiment than a viable product. But for the next decades, many inventors were trying to do the thing that Edison finally did, so that when Edison unveiled his light bulb, there were at least six others would could make a very legitimate claim to also creating a viable incandescent light bulb.
FREEBERGMany of them had patents well ahead of Edison for certain parts of the process. Edison did not, you know, birth this idea out of his own genius, but rather, he was participating very actively in a race -- transatlantic race to try to be the first one to develop this technology.
FREEBERGWell, much of the science, the great scientific breakthroughs came from England and from Germany. And there were inventors in Russia, in France, in Germany, and in England who were creating incandescent light at the same time.
REHMBut were they all sharing the information they had?
FREEBERGI think stealing is the better phrase for it, right?
FREEBERGSure. Everybody was looking to benefit from the important failures that others had made. Everybody recognized that you needed to create a vacuum bulb, or else the filament would burn up. You needed to find the right ingredient to make a filament. Edison was involved in those important parts of inventing the light bulb, but he also recognized that he was not trying to create a science experiment, but a viable commercial product. And in order for that to work, he had to also re-engineer every aspect of the system.
FREEBERGSo he made more efficient dynamo, he figured out all the wiring that had to be done to spread light over a long space.
REHMWas there a single day or a single moment that we know when he said, we've done it.
FREEBERGWe'd love to have that moment. Some have suggested that the moment that he recognized that the carbon fiber was going to work. He had tried some other titanium filament. When he realized that carbon was the right track, he had a -- one particular night where he tested a filament that lasted about 14 hours, which, of course, is far from being commercially useful, but it convinced him that he was on the right track. So if we were to pick a sort of Eureka moment -- but the fact is that other inventors long before him were already working on a carbon filament. So in some sense, his Eureka moment was simply to realize what other people had already figured out.
REHMErnest Freeberg. He's professor of history at the University of Tennessee. This new book is titled "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America." Do join u s, 800-433-8850. We've already gotten a tweet that says, "Edison received a lot of credit that Tesla should have gotten."
FREEBERGWell, that's really a separate issue. That has to do with the power systems, the AC versus the DC power. And of course, our -- it is the case that Edison, he bet on the wrong horse in a sense by pursuing DC power. He did that for very legitimate, understandable reasons back them. The problem with DC power is that it doesn't spread very far. So what Edison envisioned was a power station about every five blocks. You know, a very decentralized system, but a much safer system.
FREEBERGWhereas AC power was enormously more powerful, but also more dangerous. You could generate power and distribute it over a vast territory. It's the system we have now where the power is stepped down by transformers before it enters our house. Edison considered that to be terribly dangerous, and that as people were being electrocuted right and left during the introduction of electricity, he was convinced that this would ultimately convince people that electricity is too dangerous, and he had a point at the time.
REHMHow were people being electrocuted?
FREEBERGIt happened especially with -- really before incandescent light there were arc lights, which emerged years before. These were really the first electric lights that spread across the country, and they were a very different technology. The current passes through two carbon rods, jumps the gap, sort of like a welding arc, intensely bright, too bright to be used indoors. But this was a useful outdoor lighting system, and it used AC power, a very powerful systems, and these wires, there was no regulation.
FREEBERGIt didn't take that much for a company to go into business to, you know, create a dynamo, string up some lights. So we had, you know, in many cities we have five or six, seven, eight, a dozen different lighting companies throwing wires, tacking them to trees, tacking them to people's houses, and they started to interact especially with the thick layer of telegraph wires and fire alarm wires, you know...
FREEBERG...which were harmless in themselves, but once they were crossed with an electric light wire, people started to die in large numbers.
REHMAnd I think the other issue here is that up until electric light was introduced, you had gas, you had it all over the place, so the gas companies must have had some little problems with these new gadgets.
FREEBERGAbsolutely. And they were -- it was one of the most heavily capitalized industries in the country. They had...
REHMThe gas companies were.
FREEBERGThe gas companies were. They had enormous political power, and they were eager to point out just how dangerous electric light was, and you had a back and forth, because gas light itself was terribly dangerous and, you know, had all sorts of horrible side effects on people's lives. If you put gas into your house, it would suck the oxygen out of the air, it would replace it with a sort of poisonous stew of, you know, what one person called a carcinogenic fog in your house.
FREEBERGMany people -- I read lots of accounts of 19th century people saying they went out to the theater, you know, the gas light was beautiful, but it gave me a splitting headache and I'm never going the theater again.
FREEBERGYou know, people were hungry for light, and would put up with an awful lot.
REHMBut there were some who thought the electricity and the electric lights were really something unnatural.
FREEBERGSure. Well, the -- yes, absolutely. And dangerous, and also alien. I mean, it took a lot for people to be willing -- it took many decades, actually, for people to be willing, partly for financial reasons, but also for cultural reasons, to be willing to put this dangerous force into the walls of their houses.
REHMAnd also to move from darkness to light. The idea that darkness was the natural way, so that bringing light into life 24 hours a day was something that a great many people thought, hmm, maybe this is not such a good idea.
FREEBERGWell, there are some areas where clearly that was a problem. Many people felt as if people in the 19th century were living very frenetic lives. There was a lot of concern about nervous exhaustion and so forth, and many people blamed, first gas light, and then electric light for keeping people awake.
REHMEarnest Freeberg, professor of history at the University of Tennessee. The book is titled "The Age of Edison." Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you just joined us, Ernest Freeberg is with me. He's a professor of history at the University of Tennessee. His newest book is titled, "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America." And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet or follow us on Facebook. Why do you call this the invention of modern America?
FREEBERGWell I think a lot of the things that we associate with modern life emerged out of living in this world saturated by artificial light, the extension of the work day, the idea that technology can overcome even the most permanent seeming boundaries and limitations of nature to sort of permanent daytime if we want. It also makes possible the intense urbanization of the 20th century, the development of night life and the 24/7 economy, transportation economy. So in all these ways, it really -- it's so powerful but largely invisible. It's in the background for us, I think.
REHMYou'd talked about Edison's devotion of time, energy, money to the invention of the incandescent light bulb. Mark wants to know, has anyone ever calculated how much energy has been used by incandescent bulbs since they were invented and used as the preferred bulb compared to fluorescent bulbs, which were invented about the same time.
FREEBERGI'm not seeing that calculation. That would be interesting to know.
REHMYou've not seen that calculation.
FREEBERGIt is interesting that Edison himself considered incandescent light to be very wasteful and especially coal-powered electricity. And even as he was pushing that system around the country, he was suggesting there's got to be other ways. So he was interested in fluorescents. Many people were interested in solar power, you know, in the 1880s and '90s. They immediately saw that energy was going to be increasingly important but that coal power seemed like a bad way to go. They recognized it was going to run out.
REHMAnd here's a question about Edison's personal life. How did he marry an underage woman without incurring the wrath of Victorian Age moralistic society in America?
FREEBERGYou know, I've not run into that question. I think...
REHMHow much younger was his wife?
FREEBERGYou know, I'm not even sure. Edison got away with a lot in terms of he was an open religious skeptic. And -- but he was the wizard of Menlo Park and people look to him as an oracle for all sorts of things about which he really could have no more reasonable opinion than anybody else. But he was considered to be the great inventor. In many ways, people gave him more credit for that.
FREEBERGAs I suggested in the book, he was really -- Edison is important, but he's part of a wider, much wider culture that, in many ways, very quickly surpassed his own talents in the lighting field.
REHMDo we have an idea about his personal relationship with his wife and how it was affected by his devotion to work?
FREEBERGWell, his first wife -- he married a second time. His first wife was clearly unhappy with the amount of time that he always devoted to his work. And he was, you know, he was basically consumed by whatever project he was working on. He expected the same from his partners at Menlo Park. And his first wife, it seems evident, you know, felt neglected, suffered from depression and so forth. And so, yes, it's...
REHMThey were divorced?
FREEBERGNo. No, she died.
REHMSo he then married, apparently, a much younger woman.
FREEBERGApparently it's a scandal I didn't even know about.
REHMOkay. He was only 32 when he came up with his idea, the incandescent light. So how long did it take for the electric light to take hold across the country?
FREEBERGSurprisingly long. It -- one of the things that struck me as interesting is that light spread in patches. Almost every small city, small town in America had some electric light within just a few years because it was quite possible to buy a dynamo and a string arc lights or, you know, to install a small central power station that would cover just a little downtown district. But it was -- I think the statistic is that it was only about 15 percent of homes were wired by 1910.
REHMThe wealthier homes.
FREEBERGSure. Yeah, the wealthier homes. And the first investors, as is often the case. The first investors were factories, department stores, entertainment emporiums, they were the ones who were -- who had the money to invest in this technology before it became cost effective.
REHMAnd then there's a whole political push to light up America. Tell us about that.
FREEBERGWell, every town wanted to be, you know, not seen as being behind the times. You know, this idea that civilization is marked by how much technology you have. And so every town had its boosters who were eager to attract both, first, arc light and then incandescent light in any way they could to grant contracts. Partly to break the strangle hold of the gas monopoly, in some cases, but also just because people were enormously thrilled and excited to see this electric light.
FREEBERGFor all of its dangers, people recognized that this was the light of the future, as they often said. And so when it arrived in a town, there were balloon accessions and canon blasts. And in Cheyenne, WY, the whole town broke into song and serenaded the electricians to thank them for bringing electric light. So there was an enormous enthusiasm about this, even as people only experienced it in parts of their life. You know, when they went downtown or when they're maybe at work.
REHMBut then along the Tennessee Valley Authority.
FREEBERGWell, that was sort of the last push, right. The government saying at that point that electric light is no longer a luxury. And they were eager to breakdown what would have -- was an increasingly sharp barrier between rural Americans and urban Americans. Electric light was a very clear marker of the line between the technological haves and the have nots. And so, most people who live outside of even small towns were cut off from the light.
FREEBERGAnd so, yeah, it was important. It started in the mid-'30s. It took 20 years to reach many small towns.
REHMSo here we are in 2013, the same issue comes up in regard to internet access and Wi-Fi and all of that across the country.
REHMHow do you see the comparison?
FREEBERGWell, one thing that's interesting is I don't think -- I mean, everybody at the time recognize light as an enormous benefit boon. And I'm not sure that people would have considered having a computer in their house to be so essential. Now that they've arrived, people would be hard pressed to do without them. But I think it was really the hunger for light that led people to this enormous costly process of wiring the entire country. Without which, the digital revolution would not be possible.
REHMSo here we are with the question of public access, though, and making it a question of public right to have access to the internet...
REHM...in much the same way it was argued that electricity should be a right that every American has.
FREEBERGSure. And there's a tension there between the interest of many private companies and the role of government in posing some sort of regulation as well as providing some of the capital in order to make that possible.
REHMSo how big was the fight back then over electricity?
FREEBERGDuring the Depression, well, in fact, the electric light companies initially were very resentful of towns that decided to go into the lighting business for themselves. So there was a big struggle there. Many companies recognize the fact that they had created a chaotic marketplace when you have seven or eight different companies competing with each other. And so there was an enormous economic upheaval and regulation standardization help to eliminate that.
FREEBERGDuring the Depression, the new deal programs, they were moving into markets that the electric companies didn't consider to be worth their while to tap into or they would have gone after those markets in the first place. It took a lot of money to reach rural places and not much return. So it really took a government investment to make that possible.
REHMAnd what about the gas companies, how hard was their battle?
FREEBERGWell, they struggled for many years. And in fact, this is an interesting part of the technological race, is they got better and better at delivering gas once they faced the competition from electric light.
FREEBERGThey became far more efficient, they became safer. And it really was not until the nineteen teens that gas lights started to completely give way to electric lights. So it was quite an interesting struggle for many years.
REHMAll right, we've got lots of questions regarding Edison's rivalry with Tesla. But let's just get to one of them and then let's move on. Let's go to Ben who's in Long Island. Good morning, you're on the air.
BENGood morning, Diane. I really want to thank you for having me on the show. I listen to you all the time and I really enjoy it. Thank you.
BENI just want to ask you a question. Now, when you chose to do all this on Edison, what made you choose Edison? Was it the light bulb? And I just want to contrast that to Tesla's inventions, which gave us, you know, remote control. He gave us the alternating current, which we use every day which we take the light bulb and we plug the light bulb right into the alternating current. And that's something that Tesla created to give us wireless technology, high frequency wireless technology.
BENThe wireless that you're talking about, the frequency Wi-Fi, that's from Tesla. And what he was doing when Marconi was sending an S across the Atlantic Ocean in Morse code that was barely determinable, he was trying to create what we now use as cell phones a hundred years ago at his Wardenclyffe station in Wading River. I've been there. Edison has towns named after him, he has places named after him, and Tesla has the street, like a 500-foot street in Wading River.
REHMInteresting, go ahead.
FREEBERGI would take nothing away from Tesla and his great accomplishments. And really, I'm more interested in the impact of electric light, really tracing what happens to the light bulb when it moves through the culture. So while I think Edison plays obviously a central role in the development of lighting systems, as I make clear in my book, he's very quickly replaced by the developing Westinghouse and Tesla's partnership of AC power. Edison bets on wrong horse in that conflict over systems.
REHMBut doesn't Edison move to GE.
FREEBERGNo, Edison is essentially bought out by GE.
FREEBERGThey take his patents and combine them with some of his rivals. And Edison is essentially paid to go work on something else.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Would you acknowledge, as Ben says or puts forward, that Tesla has simply not gotten enough credit for his role in this whole development of electricity, the electric light and so on?
FREEBERGSure, I would certainly agree with that. I was interested in recovering all of the other people who had to invent, in many ways, the electric light. We think of this as being something that emerges out of the laboratory complete. But, really, the world of electric light that we live in is one that required many, many inventors who we don't think of as inventors to figure out how to adapt the light in theaters, baseball fields, in military conflicts, in shop windows, in school rooms.
FREEBERGI mean, the sort of universe -- we move through sort of a grammar of artificial light with each space sending us a particular message about how to act in that space. And this is an enormously complicated set of inventions. Surgery is another example where, you know, people had to adapt the electric light in order to use it for various sorts of operations.
FREEBERGSo I'm really more interested in the enthusiasm in the wider culture about technology and about all of the ways that people -- we don't think of them necessarily as inventors on the scale of Edison or Tesla -- but in fact it takes that sort of invention, if we are thinking about parallels between this and the digital age, we tend to personify the digital age as something that's given to us by Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, when in fact we don't have to look far to recognize the fact that many, many people at many levels are working to create this digital world.
REHMExactly. All right, to Pittsburg, PA. Good morning, Richard.
RICHARDGood morning. I'm thankful for his recognition of the work of Tesla. Pittsburg being the home of George Westinghouse and the collaboration with Tesla, which made our modern electric light system possible, along with possibly some other Germans in Germany. But what I want to know is -- and I have seen this on television purported to be a documentary years ago. Edison was so almost rabid about trying to prove that alternating current was dangerous.
RICHARDAnd we all know that an alternating current when we have it, we say we have 120 volts, the peak of that wave is actually square root of two times that. So 120 volts is regarded as the root mean square of the voltage wave. But I've seen this what looked like in quality terms an old news reel where Edison was actually electrocuting an elephant with alternating current to prove it was more dangerous than direct current. And...
REHMAnd you want to know if that's true.
RICHARDYes. And I mean, this was on a nationwide television (unintelligible).
REHMOkay. All right, Richard. Go ahead.
FREEBERGYes, that is true. Edison was convinced that AC power was dangerous. He had also invested in terms of his patents and his own economic system, he had invested everything in a system that used DC power. And, clearly, it's one of his, you know, one of his -- I suppose any inventor gets invested in a particular vision and is...
REHMWhy would he torture an elephant?
FREEBERGHe was trying to show -- and there they -- he was trying to demonstrate just how dangerous this was. It wasn't a, you know, I'm certainly not attempting to justify Edison's decision to do that. People were being electrocuted in the streets all the time by alternating current wires. And Edison believed that not only was it against his financial interests, but also that if everybody -- if people became scared about electric light, they would never be willing to put it in their homes.
REHMThe book is titled "The Age of Edison." Ernest Freeberg is the guest. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Ernest Freeberg is here with me. His new book titled "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America." Here's an email from Kelly in Dallas who says, "A lot of attention is given to the increase in productivity made possible by the invention of electric light, but little attention seems to be given to how unmooring ourselves from our eons-old evolve circadian rhythms might be affecting our mental and physical health." Your thoughts?
FREEBERGThat seems absolute the case and you can find a lot of evidence in the late 19th century of people complaining about exhaustion, nervousness. You know, the spas did a booming business trying to help people recover their health. And certainly some of that has to be traced back, not just to the -- all the other things that are going on in urban America, the pollution, the noise, but also the change in sleep patterns.
REHMInteresting. Here's an email from Mike in Beltsville who says, "When I was a child in the 50s and 60s my small Michigan town had its own generator. As time went on that generator gave way to buying power from the larger grid. Would Edison have predicted or approved of the huge electrical grids that now exist in North America?
FREEBERGWell, to hearken back to our conversation earlier, that large electrical grid relies on AC power, which Edison would've resisted. But the very idea of a grid is something that was -- you know, that Edison was a champion of and worked out on the scale that his DC power generators could provide. His rivals at that time were able to light a house or a theater, you know, a small space but he was the one who worked out conceptually the way to distribute this over a wider space.
REHMAnd here's a question from Mark in Jacksonville, Fla., "How did Edison find the right filament for his successful bulb and after how many failures?"
FREEBERGIt's hard to even count the number of failures. He tried many, many different things. And people were convinced that maybe titanium would work. They needed something that could -- that would resist melting at a very, very high heat and would incandesce, would glow when the current passed through it. Carbon was an obvious choice but it was not so easy to figure out a way to work with carbon. So it took him a long time. He and his team experimented with kite string and fishing line and beard hair and cork. And, you know, bamboo was ultimately -- it seems there was a particular strain of bamboo in Japan.
FREEBERGHe sent very -- you know, he sent explorers around to three continents to look for the best strain of bamboo. One of them, as I recall, never came back and was lost in the search for the great filament. But Japanese bamboo was replaced by a celluloid paste a little bit later on, and ultimately by metallic filaments.
REHMLet's go to Greenville, S.C. Tony, you're on the air.
TONYHi. Thanks for having me on. I just thought I'd mention the -- one of the downsides of electric light was what we call sky blow or light pollution. I work with the International Dark Sky Association. I know it sounds a little far out but they're actually very effective in changing local laws and forcing or working with manufacturers to redesign outdoor lighting so that the light doesn't go up and we can see the stars once again.
FREEBERGI was surprised at about a section in the book where I look at the toll that electric light takes on the natural world, particularly on animals that were disoriented. Obviously still very much a problem, major flocks of ducks and geese, especially during the migration periods crashing into these lights. Terrible destruction of animals. And it's just, you know, one of the ways that it disrupts the patterns of nature.
FREEBERGI don't see a lot of discussion in the late 19th century for concern about access to the sky. That's something that has emerged later but certainly the damage on the natural world is evident immediately.
REHMSure. We have a number of emails like this one from Robert in St. Louis who says, "So this is Black History month. Can your guest comment on the contributions of Lewis Latimer?
FREEBERGHe was an important part of Edison's team, as I understand it, and both -- as an articulate promoter of the -- Edison's ideas. So, yeah, I think it is important to remember, especially since so many people who are presenting the light presented this as a triumph of Anglo American civilization, right.
REHMInteresting. And a follow up on that, Denise, you're on the air.
DENISEI was so pleased to hear you just mention Latimer. I was calling regarding him. People who know about him know that he collaborated with Edison for over 30 years, which is longer than most marriages last these days. But he's the one who came up with the idea of the carbon filament, which made the incandescent light practical. He also was given the charge by Edison to go to Europe and light up London, because he was so confident in knowing how to use that technology. And I'm very interested, and I'd be interested in hearing the rest of the conversation.
FREEBERGYeah well, the carbon filament idea was out there long before Edison even got into the game. And most of his rivals were working on a carbon filament. But it certainly is the case that Lewis Latimer was an important part of the Menlo Park team. And Edison took on the responsibility, not simply of making inventions but also installing them. He was very frustrated with the capitalists behind him moving too slowly. So he and his colleagues like Lewis Latimer had to not simply make inventions but also prove that they worked and install them in the various places.
REHMInstall them. And so Lewis Latimer was sent to London, went to London. Do you know where he first installed?
FREEBERGNo, I don't remember.
REHMYeah, I wonder if -- no, our caller is gone. Here's an email saying, "You said Edison quote "got it wrong about AC versus DC." How did we arrive at AC as the national power system?"
FREEBERGWell, the rivalry was between Edison and Westinghouse, who was working with Tesla to promote AC power. And at a certain point the General Electric and Westinghouse agreed to create a duopoly of sorts across the country and to build the grid based on these patents for AC power. And it's at that point that Edison really is not part of the story. He is sort of...
REHMHe's out of it by then.
FREEBERG...he leaves and he takes his money and says, I'm going to go off and invent something, that people are going to forget I ever had anything to do with the electric light. I'm going to create something even more amazing than that.
REHMAll right. Tell us about Andrew Hickenlooper. He's somebody you talked about in the book.
FREEBERGWell, he's a -- he was the champion of the gas companies and head of the Cincinnati Gas Company. And I found him interesting largely because he represents an industry that's trying to keep electric light out. And he did everything he could to discourage the use of electric light in Cincinnati and to advance the interests of the gas company. And he was a spokesman for the gas companies suggesting that Edison had promised something that he really couldn't deliver, which was light that was less expensive and more reliable than gas. And for a couple decades, that was true.
FREEBERGReally, the turning point -- and this happened after Edison was involved -- was the development of the metallic filament in the early 20th century developed by German scientists and then by General Electric here in this country. And for the first time electric light became much more efficient, much brighter and it was possible for electric light to compete against gas in terms of the home market. Before that you really had to be willing to pay quite a premium in order to have electric light.
REHMSo how long did gas hang around as a lighting feature after electricity came in?
FREEBERGWell, I think it was -- in many places stayed strong until the 1920s when it started to be replaced. Up until about the 19 teens many installations, new buildings had both gas and electric as an option for people. Of course when the new lights arrived they were so bright that it caused a whole other problem. People were overwhelmed by how bright the metallic filaments were. And rather than being hungry for more light, people started to worry about the world becoming too bright and in sense too much glare, overwhelming in a way.
REHMCertainly at dinner parties candles are much, much favored over strong electric lights.
FREEBERGIt's interesting the way our spaces are coded that way. You know, that the wealthier -- you know, the fancier the restaurant the darker it is. And if you go into the cheapest possible restaurant it's glowing with the brightest possible lights. I suppose that's a code to suggest, look how clean we are. We can turn up the lights.
REHMLet's talk about regulation and how that came into being as far as electrification.
FREEBERGWell, there was little to no regulation at first. And as I suggested, lots of people were being electrocuted, especially by arc light wires and crossing of those with other wires, a lot of fires, electrical fires. And there really was no regulation. Nobody quite knew what safe practices were. And the companies in the business -- and you have to remember this is not just Edison but this is eight or nine different rival companies using different versions of the system. And they were not interested in sharing information or cooperating. They were rivals for the market.
FREEBERGAnd it really wasn't until the insurance companies said, we're not going to pay anymore for these buildings that are burning down. And, you know, a big part of downtown Boston burned because of an electrical fire in the 1880s. And this happened across the board, hundreds of fires. And so it was really the insurance companies that began to force the electric companies to cooperate to develop the first safety standards, and then to work with the states, local government and state government to turn those into what we now think of as the code. To impose this, in a sense, on the companies.
FREEBERGThe companies that could afford it recognized this as a necessary step in the maturity of their business. They didn't want government ownership of utilities but they recognized that government regulation of utilities was the only way to prevent this sort of chaos in the marketplace, as well as chaos because of the damage of electricity.
REHMAnd what about as far as cost?
FREEBERGWell, I mean, that was -- many towns got into this because they were promised by the electric companies that they were going to get light that was much cheaper than gas. And that did not turn out to be the case for quite a long time. Although there was a lot of interesting experiment with the arc light towers. Some -- these arc lights were so powerful that towns would try to erect a single cluster of arc lights over their city on 150' tall tower, sort of an artificial moon that they would put on. So this was -- that was an experiment to try to save money, to try to light the streets.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Reston, Va. Good morning, Jerrod, you're on the air.
JERRODOh, good morning, Diane.
JERRODSo my question is in regards to DC/AC and the thread. In so far as I know, Edison was more of a businessman when it came to electricity. And I don't know if that's right or not. You can correct me if I'm wrong. And so he mainly used it for those reasons. And so I was curious when you said that Edison championed the grid, as I didn't know that he had done that before. And I would just like to know if you could elaborate on that because it said that DC could -- because as far as I know, DC can't go long distances, but AC can for some reason.
FREEBERGRight. I meant to suggest only that his was the idea of having a central power station that fed a large area, as large as he possibly could at that time. Whereas the other inventors that he was competing with the 1870s and '80s were thinking in terms of systems that could only handle a building or a small space. Edison worked out the concept, essentially borrowing from the gaslight idea that you would have a central source of power, that it would be distributed under the streets through pipes into each home.
FREEBERGSo it's not that he invented the grid idea but he was the one who was working out the technical details of trying to deliver electric light that way right from the start.
REHMDoes that answer it, Jerrod?
JERRODYes. Thank you very much.
REHMOkay. Thanks for calling. And to Cobb Island, Md. Good morning, Kirk.
KIRKGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
KIRKI wanted to talk about a misconception your previous caller had that AC and DC travel different distances. It's more a matter of the voltage. And it's easy to step up (word?) for a really high voltage and then you lose less to friction transmitted over long distances.
REHMIs that correct?
FREEBERGThat sounds -- he certainly sounds like he has more of an authoritative voice than I do.
REHM...go ahead, Kirk.
KIRKI have a degree in electrical engineering at a bachelor's level, so I can assure you that's accurate.
FREEBERGI -- and I have a degree in English and I'll take your word for it.
REHMThanks for calling. And, you know, it is interesting that you, with a degree in English and as a professor of history chose to focus on something that's a little outside your territory.
FREEBERGWell, you know, we talk a lot -- I've spent a lot of time thinking about this late 19th century period and -- which were often called the gilded age. And we associate it with corruption, with urban problems, with immigration problems, with sort of the worst moments of race relations in the country. And all those things are true. But we could go back and look at the sources. I was struck by the number of people who said, we live in the most amazing time in human history. And it has to do with the sense that people's lives are being transformed by technological creativity. And electric light was just one of many ways that that was happening.
FREEBERGAnd I wanted to try to capture -- I think that -- and that's the sense in which I used "The Age of Edison." It's not that Edison himself shaped the age but rather that he is -- embodies one part of this embrace of technological progress that started at that point and is still with us.
REHMErnest Freeberg. The book is titled "The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America." Thanks for being here.
FREEBERGThank you very much. It's been fun.
REHMAnd thanks for listening everybody. I'm Diane Rehm.