Book review: The Last Day of Night

The book now being reviewed came to mind because of recent news about Elon Musk concerning the smaller Tesla Electric Automobile his company started producing after many years of delays, and his attempt to take his publicly held company private.

It is a 2016 book entitled The Last Day of Night by Graham Moore, and it is available in hard cover (366 pages), soft cover and electronically.

The author also wrote the screenplay for the movie The Imitation Game, which won an Academy Award Oscar for the best adapted screenplay in 2015.

The characters and events described in the book actually took place in the late 1800s; however, it was written as a historical novel because, according to the author, several characters and events were created for better reading. Some of the characters in the book are Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, George Westinghouse, J. P. Morgan, Nikola Tesla, and, among the events, is the Chicago World Fair of 1893, as well as Paul Cravath, a 26-year-old attorney fresh out of Columbia Law School.

The book starts in Manhattan in 1888, and it involves and describes the 300 plus lawsuits filed by Thomas Edison and Edison General Electric against George Westinghouse and his companies over the electric light bulb Edison claimed to have invented and Westinghouse’s alleged infringements of his patents.

Although Edison maintained his laboratory in New Jersey, his main office was at a more fashionable location on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Most of New York City Streets were then lighted by coal gas, but a handful of wealthy business owners outfitted their businesses with electric light bulbs. In addition, just a few New York Streets then contained 99 percent of electricity in the United States, including Wall Street, Madison Avenue, 34th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Paul Cravath was a junior partner in a three man New York law office, and his name was mentioned at an Ohio dinner party to George Westinghouse, who, after summoning Paul to his home in Pittsburg, hired him to defend all of Edison’s lawsuits.

Westinghouse claimed that he did not copy any of Edison’s designs for the light bulb, and that he created an improved light bulb. He also claimed that Edison was suing progress because of his inability to invent a better light bulb.

Edison patented the incandescent light bulb. Westinghouse’s bulbs were shorter and contained straight unwound filament; not coiled ones like Edison’s.

Nikola Tesla, a Serbian immigrant, who formerly worked for Edison, is one of the principal and most interesting characters in this book. Tesla invented a way to make alternating current (AC), a then novel means of electrical distribution and power transmission. It was claimed that AC was better and safer than direct current (DC) for transmission because it runs at a higher voltage, which made it more efficient for running a home or business on electrical current. AC can also be sent greater distances than DC.

Tesla was eccentric to say the least. His accent and English grammar were very difficult to understand, but he, according to the author, was an electrical genius.

Westinghouse gave Tesla a $50,000 check at a dinner party as an advance payment for Tesla to come to work for him, and Tesla forgot to take the check with him when left the dinner party.

Tesla was very important to Westinghouse, because Edison’s direct current could only travel a short distance without passing through booster generators along the way, which Edison sold in abundance. On the other hand, Tesla’s alternating current would allow Westinghouse to build just one giant generator in a community and attach many homes and businesses to it.

The book describes in laypersons’ terms the differences between DC and AC, and why Tesla’s AC was superior to DC. As a side note, in the book, Tesla also bordered on inventing an x-ray machine and a wireless telephone.
Ironically, the alternating current in Westinghouse’s products proved to be safer than direct current when Edison, over Westinghouse’s vehement protests,  through some strong political connections, convinced the New York Legislature to use alternating current in the first electric chair execution in the State of New York. Unfortunately, after four attempts to electrocute a convicted criminal, the victim did not die and the execution had to be carried out without alternating current.  

J. P. Morgan, who owned 60 percent of Edison General Electric, was convinced by Paul Cravath as Westinghouse’s attorney that both Westinghouse and Edison and their companies were losing large sums of money and their reputations in these prolonged lawsuits.

This ultimately resulted in the Edison General Electric Company becoming just the General Electric Company.
The book also brought out the fact that it was Westinghouse’s electric light bulbs that were used in the Chicago World Fair from May 1, 1893 to October 30, 1893. The lights were so numerous and bright that the fair was known as The White City.

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January 2019Volume 10Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)