The Age of Edison
Electric Light and the Invention of Modern AmericaBook - 2013
The late nineteenth century was a period of explosive technological creativity, but arguably the most important invention of the era was Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb. Unveiled in his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory in 1879, the light bulb overwhelmed Americans with the sense that they were witnessing the birth of a new age. More than any other invention, electric light marked the arrival of modernity, and Edison became a mythic figure and the avatar of an era.
To modern readers, electric light is so common that its remarkable qualities are buried under a thick layer of the obvious. We have forgotten the excitement and wonder that people felt when they saw electric light for the first time. But Americans were not simply passive consumers of Edison's 'miraculous' new light; rather, they played an active role in its creation. In myriad ways, they grappled with its meaning and used their own powers of invention to adapt the technology to a full spectrum of new uses that no single inventor, no matter how farsighted, could have anticipated.
Electirc light changed the pace of city life and the nature of work and play, and stimulated countless innovations that changed every aspect of American life - from sleep patterns to surgery, shopping to waging war. By tracing the role that incandescent light and the electrical grid played in the pivotal decades when our modern urban and commercial culture was born, we can better understand the sources of this country's great technological creativity and appreciate that inventions are not simply conjured up by great men like Edison, but evolve as they are shaped by a variety of political, economic, and cultural forces.
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.