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Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World

3.97 of 5 stars 3.97  ·  rating details  ·  608 ratings  ·  90 reviews
In the final decades of the nineteenth century, three brilliant and visionary titans of America’s Gilded Age—Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse—battled bitterly as each vied to create a vast and powerful electrical empire. In Empires of Light, historian Jill Jonnes portrays this extraordinary trio and their riveting and ruthless world of cutting-edge scie...more
Paperback, 464 pages
Published October 12th 2004 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published 2003)
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Empires of Light by Jill JonnesBenjamin Franklin by Walter IsaacsonDark Light by Linda SimonGalvani's Spark by Alan McComasThe First American by H.W. Brands
History of Electricity
1st out of 53 books — 7 voters
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Surge 2013 Reading List
4th out of 22 books — 5 voters

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Community Reviews

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I seem to have a bad track record in picking technology. I was one of those who plumped for HD-DVD instead of the now-ubiquitous Blu-Ray; I was obsessed with my MiniDisc player long after music companies had stopped bothering to release anything on the format; and back home, in a cupboard somewhere, my family still has the old Betamax player that I remember trying to get excited about while all my friends had gone with VHS. It was better, I'm telling you!!

So I sympathise with those on the wrong...more
Gary Brecht
In a way Jill Jonnes has accomplished what the principal subjects of her book did for the world; she sheds light on the evolution of the harnessing of electricity. What a fascinating tale it turns out to be! She identifies three main protagonists. They are Thomas Edison, Nicola Tesla and George Westinghouse. Numerous others precede them, like Galvani, and Benjamin Franklin, and there is an assortment of bit players in the history of electricity. Jonnes gives them their due. But Edison, Tesla and...more
Nov 03, 2010 TrueEd added it
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I loved this book! I bought it hoping to learn, more than anything, about Tesla. I ended up learning an incredible amount about Tesla, Edison and Westinghouse--and a lot about the time period they lived, as well. Each of the three men came to life in this book!

The vast majority of the book is really interesting. There are a few parts where it seemed to bog down a little bit with unnecessary detail, and a little bit of repetitiveness in parts.

Overall, though, Jill Jones has done an excellent jo...more
Christopher Litsinger
This book was fantastic, an entertaining look into the early advent of electricity. Part of the strength of the book was in little non-sequiturs like this one:
They would share the nighttime streets with the city’s denizens of the dark, including the great army of rag pickers and their dog-pulled wooden carts, each licensed to root through the daily refuse for salvageable cloth.

which generally made me want more information about some unrelated but fascinating topic.
Here's a favorite quote from th...more
Kathy Cowley
Jonnes takes a fascinating look at what is known as the War of Electric Currents--an all out corporate, scientific, patent, and journalistic battle between the likes of Edison (who wanted Direct Current Power), Tesla (who wanted Alternate Current Power), and dozens of other players, most notably Westinghouse, a fascinating scientist who may not have had the flair of Tesla but had the business acumen to bring Tesla's visions to the world.

Did you know that there were seven years of patent battles...more
Empires of Light made it onto my reading list via Bryan Cantrill's excellent talk at Surge 2013 ( In his talk, he had mentioned that "if you lionize Thomas Edison then you need to read that book." I'm not a diehard Edison fan, but I do have a sense of appreciation for his work and am familiar with some of the controversy surrounding him via tidbits I picked up from QI.

Empires of Light takes place in the late 1800s when electricity was just starting to be understood,...more
This book is phenomenal! Absolutely one of my favorite history books I've ever read! Set against the backdrop of the Gilded Age (one of my favorite eras of history to explore), this book weaves history through a narrative as exciting as a novel as it depicts the rival between Edison and Co. and George Westinghouse with his eccentric compatriot in the War of the Currents, Nikola Tesla. This book covers everything, from the first revolutionary inventions that blazed the trail, to the fight for the...more
Eric Means
I discovered this book in the gift shop of Edison's winter home in July during a torrential downpour. At the time, lightning was crackling above a truly immense tree standing on the grounds, which was perhaps fortuitous.

If you've ever plugged in a lamp or an appliance, if you've ever had power go out in your neighborhood due to an overly exploratory squirrel, especially if you've ever shocked yourself changing out an outlet or a light fixture and wondered, "Why the hell did that happen," you sho...more
Kai Coates
I do not have a scientific mind, so any bits of science that I know are picked up from books like this one. Jill Jonnes does an admirable job of tracing the study of electricity from its nascent beginnings to the titular clash of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over whose form of electricity would rule supreme. Both were self-made men with inventive minds. Edison was exceedingly stubborn and believed in building everything from his own designs, dismissing all others (even when they worked...more
In recent times, there has been a growing trend to view Nikola Tesla more favorably than he had been in the past, and Thomas Edison less favorably.

The new narrative goes something like this: "Tesla was the real genius and transformative scientist, a dreamer who cared about nothing but the advancement of science. Thomas Edison, on the other hand, was no great scientist and just a ruthless, immoral businessman."

Well, neither statement is quite true.

This book is best described by its title. The ma...more
Dan Sussman
With all of the furious jousting over patents by tech giants such as Apple, Google and Samsung, one might be tempted to think that such intellectual property combat is something new. That’s anything but the case, however. In “Empires of Light,” historian Jill Jonnes paints a detailed picture of the arrival of the electric age at the close of the 19th Century and the fierce battles between the proponents of direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). She describes in detail the technology,...more
This was a very interesting book. I wish that it really dealt more with the main characters of the book: Thomas Edison, Nicolai Tesla, and George Westinghouse. I know that there was a bitter rivalry between Tesla and Edison and I wish the book could have delved a little deeper into it. There was a lot of technical information in the book and that made it a little boring for me. It is a shame that Tesla who was very innovative and brilliant, never got the recognition in his lifetime. Thomas Ediso...more
I actually read this as preparation for a book about energy use in the US because I wanted some historical perspective on the development of the electric grid. I'm not sure it ended up being relevant, but I really enjoyed it anyway!
Jonnes' book is a history of the development of electricity, both as a scientific field of study and as a product consumed on a large scale by the public. Most of the book focuses on the "War of the Currents," a phrase applied to the intellectual and commercial war of...more
During the time of America’s Wild West, there was also a wildness in the civilized East. It wasn’t a range war; it was ruthless combat on the frontier of science. Telegraphs and trains compressed time and space, engines and motor gave man super strength, and electricity expanded day into night. These were parlor tricks that burst out of the laboratories to the wonder of a bustling nation. It was near magic, and hardnosed men fought to control these supernatural enterprises.

Jill Jonnes in Empires...more
Very interesting. I have to admit that before reading this book, the name Tesla brought to mind 80s/90s hair bands for me, not electricity. Therefore, my learning (interest) curve was rather steep. The book was well-researched and not overly technical.

I think it takes a rare talent to pull together hundreds of first hand accounts into a coherent bibliographic sketch. Jill Jonnes does not possess this talent, unfortunately. Tesla was at times in the book portrayed as kind of an anti-social weird...more
Spicy T AKA Mr. Tea
not bad, no not bad at all. the only portrayal of the race to ac i've read and i was riveted at parts, bored at others, and even lightly annoyed. first, the author definitely has her own biases and that was certainly reflected in the ways she described labor agitation in the late 1800s and early 1900s. second, i felt like a lot of the book revolved around that saintly millionaire westinghouse and didn't really cash in as much as i would have liked on the rivalry between tesla and edison. instead...more
Aaron Ash
This was a well-written book about a fascinating time period. I believe it to be a good historical account of what happened between these men that helped bring us to our current state (pun intended). The author did a good job of explaining the scientific discoveries without talking over my head. I feel I have a much better understanding of the development of our electrical system and why we revere these three names.
The author did leave out at least one incident (Edison shocking an elephant) tha...more
To clarify the two-star rating, I did enjoy the book. However, there are some glaring issues.

First, the good: you do learn a lot by reading this book. "Introductory" would be a good label, since it is a good introduction to a subject that is highly technical and, well, not much explored.

The bad: Ms. Jonnes is an okay writer, but she did not do this subject justice. My personal opinion is that a non-fiction book should retain some chronology (or should at least in this case), but Empires of Ligh...more
Barb Hunt
How could we live without electricity? We depend on it completely every day. Empires of Light is the remarkable story of the inventors and businessmen who made our modern life possible through hard work, determination, and genius. Westinghouse has been important in my life. Growing up in Pittsburgh, my father worked at the sprawling East Pittsburgh plant for his entire career and I also worked for the company for 14 years. The story of George Westinghouse, Tesla, and Edison was fascinating and g...more
Frederick Bingham
This is the story of the dawning of the age of electricity. It starts with Ben Franklin and his kite and key experiment. It talks about Michael Faraday as well. But most of the book is spent discussing Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. Edison invented the light bulb, and many other important parts of the electrical system, but got sidetracked into a fervor for DC power. Tesla, was the brilliant inventor of the AC dynamo, and early on realized that AC was far superior for many...more
Empires of Light has the characters and storyline of a TV drama, but is educational to boot. There's Edison--brilliant, visionary, and such a hard worker he lived at Menlo Park, rarely visiting his family. Obsessed with retaining the upper hand in the blossoming electricity industry, he went so far as to stealthily endorse electricity as a new method of execution, but only his competitors' brand. Nicola Tesla, a young prodigy whose ideas ranged from the revolutionary to the fantastic, was deathl...more
I really enjoyed this book. Even though my interest in electricity (and therefore knowledge) has been well underway for several years I felt that this book brought it ought in a splendid manner. Jill Jonnes manages to bring (an often perceived to be boring) science to life. She creates interest and tells it in a way that turns to both people working in the profession as well as others.

Concerning the story, I was genuinly impressed by both Faraday and Tesla in particular. How these men managed to...more
Very interesting book. I had no idea that Westinghouse was such a player in the introduction of electricity to the world. I knew of Tesla, but didn't know much until I read this book. The story about how the world was truly transformed is remarkable and this book is very well-written.
John Farrow
I really enjoyed this book. It was fascinating to learn about something that we all take for granted every day. I didn't expect a whole chapter on electrocution as capital punishment! That was a fascinating contribution to the debate between AC and DC, if somewhat unsettling. I probably would have given five stars if there was a little more on the theories behind electricity, but I'm a geek for those kind of things. Anyway, great book nonetheless.
A well researched, compelling narration of the early electrification of America.

However: the overall structure is slightly clunky, with chapters jumping out of chronological order and little effort to provide context. Focus is on each major event as a stand-alone occurrence. Makes what should be an excellent read slightly jarring.
Interesting detail, but too little information in too many pages. The best stuff was on how businesses were designed and fought each other, but Jonnes had a tendency to play up drama that didn't amount to much.
Seth Lindsey
Jones narratives allows this book to step outside of usual fiction cookie cutters, and actually become something fun. Widely informative and entertaining (even made me laugh a few times,) definitely recommended.
Overall a pretty good book, showing the relationships between the three main characters, but there were some glaring issues I had with the book. First of all, I don't care about the facial hair of every...single...character. Nor do I really need "color" in the form of describing the weather on the day in question, because I also question the accuracy of said weather (did Jonnes really access the historical weather databases to find out whether it was sunny or cold on the day in question?). These...more
Mle Morrow
Jonnes did a great job making a potentially dull story very vibrant and enjoyable and was very successful in bringing depth to the characters.

As other reviewers have mentioned, one of the frustrations (and my reason for not giving the book a five star rating) about the book is the absence of a sense of chronology. There are several points in the book where a reader may find there is a need to stop and reorient themselves in the story's timeline.

Overall, a very worthwhile read.
As much as adore the subject matter (Edison! Tesla! Westinghouse! Current wars! Conspiracies! The Chicago World's Fair! Niagara Falls! Victorian silliness!) I could hardly stomach the florid prose and therefore crept through at a turtle pace.
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