The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America

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Overview

The late nineteenth century was a period of explosive technological creativity, but arguably the most important invention of all was Thomas Edison’s incandescent lightbulb. Unveiled in his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory in 1879, the lightbulb overwhelmed the American public with the sense of the birth of a new age. More than any other invention, the electric light marked the arrival of modernity.

The lightbulb became a catalyst for the nation’s transformation from a rural to...

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The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America

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Overview

The late nineteenth century was a period of explosive technological creativity, but arguably the most important invention of all was Thomas Edison’s incandescent lightbulb. Unveiled in his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory in 1879, the lightbulb overwhelmed the American public with the sense of the birth of a new age. More than any other invention, the electric light marked the arrival of modernity.

The lightbulb became a catalyst for the nation’s transformation from a rural to an urban-dominated culture. City streetlights defined zones between rich and poor, and the electrical grid sharpened the line between town and country. “Bright lights” meant “big city.” Like moths to a flame, millions of Americans migrated to urban centers in these decades, leaving behind the shadow of candle and kerosene lamp in favor of the exciting brilliance of the urban streetscape.

The Age of Edison places the story of Edison’s invention in the context of a technological revolution that transformed America and Europe in these decades. Edison and his fellow inventors emerged from a culture shaped by broad public education, a lively popular press that took an interest in science and technology, and an American patent system that encouraged innovation and democratized the benefits of invention. And in the end, as Freeberg shows, Edison’s greatest invention was not any single technology, but rather his reinvention of the process itself. At Menlo Park he gathered the combination of capital, scientific training, and engineering skill that would evolve into the modern research and development laboratory. His revolutionary electrical grid not only broke the stronghold of gas companies, but also ushered in an era when strong, clear light could become accessible to everyone.

In The Age of Edison, Freeberg weaves a narrative that reaches from Coney Island and Broadway to the tiniest towns of rural America, tracing the progress of electric light through the reactions of everyone who saw it. It is a quintessentially American story of ingenuity, ambition, and possibility, in which the greater forces of progress and change are made visible by one of our most humble and ubiquitous objects.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

"We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles." Thomas Edison's confidence in his electric light invention was so emphatic that he launched a company to sell a year before his first successful bulb experiment. But, as this new addition to the Penguin History of American Life shows, even Edison's daring predictions pale before the radical transformations caused by his invention. Ernest Freeberg's luminous new narrative shows that the long-lived "Wizard of Menlo Park" (1847-1931) not only created a technology that changed lives worldwide, but also helped create a culture of invention, making systematic research a disciplined, economic activity. An engrossing historical study of ingenuity at work.

The Washington Post - Marcia Bartusiak
The Age of Edison is not a detailed history of Edison's role in the development of electric lighting but rather a grand overview of the invention's sweeping repercussions on America's soul. Digging deeply into archives and old newspapers, Freeberg takes us on a captivating intellectual adventure that offers long-forgotten stories of the birth pangs of the electrical age that are amusing, surprising and tragic.
Publishers Weekly
In his illuminating newest, Freeberg, a professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee, examines the social, technological, and political context surrounding the development of the electric light bulb and its transformative effects on American society. Though numerous early thinkers and innovators drove the technology to fruition, Freeberg (Democracy’s Prisoner) demonstrates that it was Thomas Edison who, by founding the Edison Electric Light Company, established a modern industrial approach that synthesized scientific collaboration, entrepreneurship, and salesmanship in the development of a “complete lighting system” that could power an “incandescent bulb of superior design.” In effect, he democratized light. The excitement spread quickly, but Americans were torn: some celebrated while others reviled the undeniable ways in which their work and leisure life would be dramatically changed. Though most saw this innovation as a sign of human advancement and enlightenment, electric lighting was criticized by gas companies (for obvious reasons), labor groups, and cultural figures that saw in the ubiquity of illumination a frightful, unnatural way of life. Even though he would live to see his own innovations and patents made exponentially more productive and efficient, the “Wizard of Menlo Park” came to embody “a vanishing heroic age of invention” that “laid the foundation of modern America.” Illus. (Feb. 21)
Los Angeles Times
One of the many pleasures of 'Age of Edison,' Ernest Freeberg's engaging history of the spread of electricity throughout the United States, is that he captures the excitement and wonder of those early days, when 'a machine that could create enough cheap and powerful light to hold the night at bay' promised 'liberation from one of the primordial limits imposed by nature on the human will'…Freeberg's thoughtful and thought-provoking book quietly suggests that, to properly distribute and control such a powerful force, commercial initiative and a sense of civic responsibility were equally essential.
Wall Street Journal
Mr. Freeberg's broad research adds up to a vivid social history with parallels for today's technology innovators and for those who wish to increase their number. It underscores the point that the work of Edison and other pioneers of light took place in an unusual setting, a period in which American invention was remarkably active and fertile…'The Age of Edison' comes at a fitting time, the close of the era of the incandescent light. When the old stocks of incandescents run out, it may be the end of pleasant illumination at a cheap price—that is, until another Thomas Edison finds a way.
Kirkus Reviews
Freeberg (History/Univ. of Tennessee; Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, 2008) returns with a survey of the transformative changes wrought in American culture by electric light. The author begins at Edison's facility in Menlo Park, 1879, as the inventor struggles to find a suitable filament for his bulb. Freeberg then takes us on a swift, eclectic tour of the electric world as it emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He reminds us how darkness had characterized human life for centuries and what a startling adjustment it was to live in ample light. The rhythms of daily life changed forever. The author also follows the fortunes of the gas companies, whose monopoly on light was about to topple. (Unsurprisingly, they were not happy.) He shows us how light affected many other aspects of American life, including shopping, transportation, leisure (night baseball as early as 1880), education and medicine. Freeberg also examines how the spread of light across the country came to symbolize not just American inventiveness, but for many, cultural superiority as well. The author notes that, for a while, light was the property of the well-to-do, then of urban dwellers and, finally, of rural Americans, many of whom did not have electricity until the rural electrification projects of the New Deal. Freeberg also shows the gradual growth of the profession of electrician, the standardization of products (bulb sockets) and the rise of university degrees in electrical engineering. Until training and standards became widespread, there were many fires and electrocutions--Freeberg describes some grim ones. A genial, sometimes-jolting account of the social and political consequences of crying, "Fiat lux!"
Library Journal
Freeberg (history, Univ. of Tennessee; Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent) tells the story of Edison's inventive genius in the context of the cultural, economic, and political forces of his time. The author gives greater relevance to Edison's personal achievements by portraying him as one inventor among many who worked during a time of rapid technological development that would herald the emergence of the modern world. He explains how Edison's coordinated program of research focused his and others' insights, while the inventor also championed a technology yet unrealized. The book goes on to explore how Edison's efforts to produce a commercially successful light bulb and electrical infrastructure caused mixed feelings, as people foresaw both promise and danger in electric light, itself a potent symbol of progress. Freeberg explores the impact of electric light on work, transportation, and patenting, as well as the public's reception and acceptance of electric power. VERDICT This accessible, well-written book will find audience with anyone interested in a history of early 20th-century technology and its importance to modern life.—Jon Bodnar, Emory Univ. Lib., Atlanta
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594204265
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 2/21/2013
  • Series: Penguin History American Life Series
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Ernest Freeberg is a distinguished professor of humanities in the history department at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of The Education of Laura Bridgman and Democracy’s Prisoner, which was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and winner of the David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History and the Eli M. Oboler Award from the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Roundtable. Freeberg is a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and has produced a number of public radio documentaries on historical themes.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 2, 2013

    This is a very entertaining look at something we all take for gr

    This is a very entertaining look at something we all take for granted...even though we haven't had it very long. Worth reading just to illuminate (pun intended) everything you will ever read or watch about the late 19th and early 20th Century.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 20, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Comprehensive social history the ubiquitous light bulb and how i

    Comprehensive social history the ubiquitous light bulb and how it impacted American life and society. The world of the rich man and the poor, the urbanite and the farmer are all explored in this book and the author paints a compelling picture of American life before and after the advent of artificial light. A wealth of people and institutions populate this book and they all have a part to play as the reader is lead along on this memorable journey. A joy to read for both history buffs and the everyman you won't feel your time is wasted.

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  • Posted August 11, 2013

    I did not finish the book. The author's leftist bias came out on

    I did not finish the book. The author's leftist bias came out on nearly every page. This is not an objective history / biography, but a propaganda vehicle for the author.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 28, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    He killed animals to show how dangerous (powerful) teslas energy

    He killed animals to show how dangerous (powerful) teslas energy was and now the man who invented free energy died penniless because of edison plus jp morgan had the stock on copper, which required nonfree methods in order for him to profit from the copper. Read the wizard about tesla, the true scientist revolutionary. Though im sure this book is full of fascinating bias information about how edison was "what it was all about"

    0 out of 25 people found this review helpful.

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