Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Age of Edison, by Ernest Freeberg

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

The Age of Edison is a splendid book. It transports the reader back to a time when society was being turned upside down with the introduction of a seemingly magical new technology: the incandescent light bulb. Gas was on the way out, but electricity’s road to dominance was not a smooth one.

The title of this book makes it sound like a paean to the achievements of Thomas Edison, but The Age of Edison is really a cultural-scientific history of electricity’s early years from the late 1870s to the 1920s. While it was Edison who invented the incandescent light bulb, there were many inventors and scientists who came before him. There would be many innovators who would succeed him.

For most of us, children of the late 20th century, it’s impossible to imagine a time without lights that could be turned on with the flick of a switch. My grandmother, born in the 1920s and growing up in the Melbourne working class suburb of Abbotsford, tells me she remembers when electricity was first connected to residential houses. Apparently residents received booklets advising that electricity was safe and nothing to worry about. Reading The Age of Edison plunges you back into the era of gas lighting and all its imperfections, at a time when America was on the cusp of going electric. Edison unveiled his light bulb at his Merlo Park laboratory in 1879. From that time on, incandescent lighting went on its inexorable rise. There were plenty of fits and starts as things went wrong and the technology, often dangerous and disruptive, found its way into the culture.

Gas, Soot and Live Wires

The era of the gas lamp was not a pretty one. Gas lamps produced a lot of soot, smelt none too good and consumed a lot of oxygen. Gas lamps in the home over time ruined the furniture, the drapes and the walls. Nor was the quality of the lighting good. In theatres that were lit with gas, crowds were almost asphyxiated by the fumes. Electric lighting promised clean, bright light.

However, there were problems. The wiring, for a start, was extremely hazardous in the early years of electricity. Loose, live wires often hung from electricity poles and there were many deaths. Citizen groups even agitated for the removal of the hated poles. At one stage there were strong calls to bury all the wiring underground, but this was found to be next to impossible to do. The future of electricity at this stage was not a certain thing, and gas companies developed a smug attitude, sure that electricity was nothing more than a passing fad. Reading about the many tragic deaths of linesmen, innocent citizens and poor animals due to loose wires and other tragic accidents, it makes you realise how much earlier generations sacrificed so the technology could be developed to a standard we all enjoy today.

The Age of Edison is a splendid book. It’s a well-considered history of the early age of electricity, looked at from all social, economic and scientific angles. Electricity is something we all now take completely for granted, but author Ernest Freeberg highlights many things we never think about. For example, surgery before electrical lighting was a nightmare. Bodies cut open for invasive surgery needed excellent lighting so surgeons could work with accuracy. Before incandescent lighting, this was not possible, with operations performed under skylights at advantageous times of the day.

The economic effects of incandescent lighting are also now taken for granted, but back in the late 19th century, being able to extend the working day into the night provided a virtual revolution in productivity. Think what the economy would look like if all work stopped at sun set. Even in the home, where once the family members huddled around a single gas lamp to read or sew, could now work independently at their own electric lamps. The Age of Edison shows how society was completely revolutionised, how everyone’s lives were changed forever, by the invention of incandescent lighting. The brilliance (pun intended) of Freeberg’s book is that he takes you through a society undergoing enormous change at the turn of the century, and makes you feel what it must have been like to experience such change. Freeberg also shows how electricity has made us the people we are today, by tracing the history of a technology we now take as a normal part of life.

The Age of Edison, by Ernest Freeberg. Published by Penguin Press. ISBN: 9781594204265 RRP: $29.99