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

  • Ernest Freeberg
  • Penguin
  • 354 pp.

An insightful account of the scientific innovation and passion that transformed an idea into a modern technological system.

Ernest Freeberg’s account of the impact of electric lighting on American society is first of all the story of the competitive spirit. Eschewing the “great man” inventor thesis for a far more nuanced and sophisticated one, Freeberg describes the multiple contributions of Edison and many others whose passion for scientific innovation turned incandescent light from an idea into a modern technological system. His fascinating study fills an important gap in the social history of modernity.

Freeberg’s early chapters on the transatlantic exchange of science and technology are important reminders that the famous Thomas A. Edison was not an isolated genius, but a member of a robust, inventive scientific community. The great challenge of bringing electric light to America in the late 19th century was inventing a workable, reliable filament to light streets, homes and cities and implementing a delivery system that would be stable, adaptable and profitable.

Using the great scientific expositions of Paris (1881) and Philadelphia (1884) to highlight the diverse competitive ideas of marketing this new product, Freeberg explores the costs and benefits of a technology no one was quite certain how to control. Edison’s achievement was in insisting that the technology be translated into a functioning system that could be imposed on the physical, economic and political reality of cities, industries and private homes — one capable of delivering light safely and at a reasonable rate. A well-respected cultural and social historian, Freeberg is at his best describing the economic and social aspects of what happened when illumination eventually penetrated every geographical region of America and reached every social class. He is particularly deft in discussing the crucial role played by the democratization of U.S. patent law in the eventual triumph of this innovative technology.  

As a social historian, Freeberg writes enthusiastically about the implications of illumination for people’s daily life and work. Two exceptional chapters, “Work Light” and “Leisure Light,” include fascinating discussions on the creation of night work, the inevitable intensification and pace of work, the impact of electric light on child labor, and the emergence of new domestic and workplace stresses.  

Freeberg’s thorough account is relieved and enlivened by many interesting line-drawings and old photographs. This reviewer was particularly pleased to note that the author considered, at least briefly, the impact of illumination and the intensity of light on non-human nature. Nocturnal routines of insects, birds and other animals were upset by illumination, often with devastating effects to their populations. Night fishing, for example, contributed to overfishing some populations and altered spawning patterns of others.

The author draws heavily upon Robert Friedel and Paul Israel’s 2010 Edison’s Electric Light: The Art of Invention, and Israel’s 1998 biography, Edison: A Life of Invention. Freeberg adds little to the portrait of Edison. Rather, the delight of this economic and social history is in the details of how completely electric-lighting changed American life. 

Of all the implications for electricity, light and illumination that Freeberg mentions, he neglects what predictable light meant for women in the home and how deeply it upended traditional gender roles. Safe and affordable illumination revolutionized homemaking and motherhood, providing the possibility for middle class women to move outside their traditional domestic sphere, and bringing more diversity within. Freeberg remarks on how light exposed more dirt in the home and made housewives aware of germs, but did not this new awareness also lead to far more revolutionary changes for women as consumers and homemakers?

Written in an appealing style with obvious delight in the story, The Age of Edison is both fascinating and insightful. The ability to turn night into day was a singular marker on the path to modernity, fundamentally changing the way we were.

Linda Lear is a full time writer and the biographer of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (2009) and of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (2008). She writes “Telling Lives” at authorlindalear.blogspot.com.


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