Contrasts

Right now I’m reading Empires of Light. It’s the fascinating tale of how the world was electrified. Not “electrified” in the sense of “the Beatles are coming to town!” but rather, literally, why I can flip a switch and the lights go on in my house.

This tale could be utterly pedantic – for instance, “first we wired up Wall Street, then we went up 1st Avenue”, etc. but it’s not. Rather, it’s the story of all the people behind this massive undertaking: their dreams, their quirks, their greed and the alliances and factions between them.

The central characters are Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Edison is the quintessential scrappy American inventor while Tesla is the refined, sophisticated European scientist. I absolutely loved this paragraph where the author writes about what each thought of the other:

…Far worse, believed Tesla, was Edison’s approach to science: “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search…His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of his labor.” Edison, in turn, dismissed Tesla as a “poet of science” whose ideas were “magnificent but utterly impractical.”

I love the stereotypes they throw at each other (and this is in the 1880’s). For what it’s worth, Tesla’s ideas won, but it took American money and business acumen to make them win – plus he died broke. Edison’s technology lost the war, but lives on (it powers the computer I’m writing this on) and so does his company: General Electric was formed out of Edison’s many holdings.

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