The Age of Edison
Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America
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.
Introduction. Inventing Edison
One. Inventing Electric Light
Two. Civic Light
Three. Creative Destruction: Edison and the Gas Companies
Four. Work Light
Six. Inventive Nation
Seven. Looking at Inventions, Inventing New Ways of Looking
Eight. Inventing a Profession
Nine. The Light of Civilization
Ten. Exuberance and Order
Eleven. Illumination Science
Twelve. Rural Light
Epilogue. Electric Light’s Golden Jubilee
"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."
—Los Angeles Times
"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."
—Wall Street Journal
Advance Praise for The Age of Edison:
"A dynamo of a book powered by an infectious enthusiasm for the can-do spirit of Edison and rival geniuses racing to turn night into day. Freeberg writes with verve and uncommon clarity, all the while deeply enriching our understanding of an age raring to embrace modernity."
—A. Roger Ekirch, author of At Day's Close: Night in Times Past
"Ernest Freeberg's fascinating account of the arrival and impact of electric lighting in America fills an important gap in the history of this subject. This well-written and insightful book should appeal both to scholars and lay readers, all of whom will learn much about the complex history of the adoption of this new technology."
—Paul Israel, author of Edison: A Life of Invention; General Editor, The Thomas Edison Papers
"Freeberg's deft social history explores a remarkable period in America's cultural and economic development. By understanding the post-Edison world we can see how nightlife really began; how our workdays grew considerably longer; and how the urban gloom was extinguished by the commerce of illumination."
—Jon Gertner, author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
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