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

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  1,991 ratings  ·  255 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
Kindle Edition, 464 pages
Published (first published August 19th 2003)
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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
Jun 01, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, overdrive
This was the story of Thomas Alva Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla , who collectively and individually did so much to change the economic and physical conditions of everyone in the world. About a year ago I read a novel about these three individuals. It incorporated factual events but also turned their lives into a melodramatic soap opera, so of course it was sold to Hollywood. I wanted to know the real story behind the spread of electricity and these brilliant, ambitious and driven ...more
Instead of writing about one of these great titans Edison, Tesla or Westinghouse, Jill Jonnes chose to write about all three in one book. Jonnes focused on the race to control electricity delivery to the country. The battle between Edison and Tesla was whether electricity should be delivered and put to use as direct or alternating current. Edison backed direct and Tesla alternating current. Westinghouse jumped into the fray to control the delivery to business and homes throughout the country. We ...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
Aug 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The book describes the battles and struggles that had led to the electrifying of America. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, had discovered direct current electricity. However, a genius working for Edison Nikola Tesla had discovered alternating current. Edison viewed alternating current as dangerous. As a result, a man with a great business acumen, George Westinghouse lured Tesla to his company in Pittsburgh. Tesla also developed the induction motor which needed alternating current t ...more
Feb 14, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I am disappointed and would not recommend this book. It was a real chore to complete.
Disappointed because author Jill Jonnes picked a topic that should have been a sure thing. She obviously immersed herself in the lives of Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse and knows the science at least well enough to write about it.
The problem with this book boils down to the author. The writing, book organization, and length are dreadful. First, the organization. It helps with a non-fiction book like this one to
Jan 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction

“No more will men be slaves to hard tasks. My motor will set them free, it will do the work of the world.” [—Nikola Teslar] (Kindle Locations 1578-1579)

Although reading Empires of Light: Edison, Teslar, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, by Jill Jonnes was a bit of a slog at times, its wealth of interesting anecdotes and solid information makes it a four-star read. From Thomas Edison’s promotion of his competitor’s, George Westinghouse’s, high-voltage A
Ken Rideout
Such an interesting story to tell, filled with momentous men and events! However, what a clumsy exposition: Overly long, somewhat repetitive (each chapter focuses on a particular person or a single event and feels to be written independent of the other chapters). Although I learned a fair amount of history I didn't know, the bad science in a book like this is inexcusable. So much detail on what people were wearing or eating and yet the details of the multiphase AC electric grid is barely explain ...more
Eric Plunkett
The story is fascinating. Would be a great movie.

The writing was pretty brutal.
Feb 19, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2020
Internet memes will tell you Tesla good, Edison bad. Life, of course is more complicated than that.

This book focuses on the battle to light the world. Edison arrives with Direct Current. On one hand, it's safe. On the other hand, it's completely impractical in the idea of lighting the world on large scale. As the competition, George Westinghouse and the team behind Direct Current.

Edison is the workaholic genius. He is unhip these days, but he really is an American legend. His fault may be that h
Becca Guillote
Nov 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a great read, entertaining and certainly educational. I love how Jonnes wraps in historical details of the time, and paints a picture of what life was like at the time that the electricity war raged. The book took me a long time to get through though. While it was interesting, I think the density of it led me to distraction pretty quickly. But in the end I loved getting to know the main characters in such a drastic technological time.
Josh Friedlander
The famous story of the Battle of the Currents. Surprisingly, of the title's threesome it is Westinghouse - not the Tesla beloved by Silicon Valley - who is Jonnes' hero, portrayed as a fair and sensible businessman, in contrast to the conniving dirtbag Edison, who tried to hold back and besmirch AC electricity purely for pecuniary gain.

Jonnes begins her tale with a good overview of the early development and commercialization of electricity, from Benjamin Franklin's experiments using Leyden jars
Feb 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was a wonderful little volume that filled in details for me on the War of the Currents, while also providing great background, and good information on George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and Thomas Edison. I was fairly aware of Edison and Tesla, even if I didn't remember all of the details, and Jonnes does a great job explaining their origins, their triumphs, and their weaknesses as people. The rise of Edison and Tesla were told such that it was fun and I did not want to stop reading.

For me
Nov 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked this book because it was a mixture of history and science with a Pittsburgh connection (George Westinghouse). It took me a long time to finish it because I wanted to understand the science behind it so the first part of the book was slow. I found George Westinghouse to be a sympathetic person, Edison and Tesla, less so. I have never visited Niagara Falls but now I want to so I can better appreciate hydroelectic power. Much of the tension in the book was about using direct current (DC, Ed ...more
Michael Burnam-Fink
Aug 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019, history
I had a longer review, which got eaten by a refresh page, so tl;dr, this is an okay but light popular history, with Westinghouse and AC as the protagonist. It's best talking about the sensational safety maneuverings around the battle of the currents, including the first execution via electric chair, and gruesome public demos where dogs and horses were electrocuted, but it has a rather surface level take on technology and corporate politics. Still interested to compare electricity in 1890 to dotc ...more
Heather C
I’ve been sitting on writing this review for the last couple weeks because my thoughts were all over the place with it, but that hasn’t seemed to have changed with time. I think it’s a sign.

Empires of Light covered every base that you can likely think of within the realm of electricity and how it evolved into an everyday convenience. While the scope is narrowed, in theory, to the contributions and legacies of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse, the fact that these were the big
Eric Means
Dec 19, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Gary Brecht
Sep 23, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Katherine 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
Tom Blumer
Jul 27, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Vishaka Datta
If you thought the patent wars between Apple and Samsung over smartphone design are messy and adversarial, Empires of Light documents a series of battles far more brutal, and with consequences arguably more epic. Unlike Apple and Samsung, this wasn't just about the rights to manufacture products that are technically identical to each other. This was a battle over rival technologies, personalities and competing visions of the future, fought at a time when most of the refined legal weaponry availa ...more
Empires of Light is less a history of how the United States became electrified and more a biography of three electrical titans – Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse -- as they pursued their own electrical projects in cooperation and bitter conflict. All three were passionate, heedless inventors who loved plowing their money in money into new ideas, sometimes at the cost of bankruptcy. They differed sharply on the best way to distribute electricity. Edison preferred the safe, expensive, and density-d ...more
John Forbes
Nov 26, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Centered on the Gilded Age race to proliferate electricity throughout America (and the world). Empires does a good job of profiling its three main subjects - Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse. Edison is by far the most well-known of the trio, but as with most heroic images in history the details of his ascent and life are obscured by space and time. The Tesla name is best know today for Elon Musk’s electric car brand which, in a small way, does homage to the first electrical wi ...more
We Are All Mad Here
If you, like me, have a burning need to know everything about the beginnings of electricity - well, you couldn't do much better than this book. ...more
Jun 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An unbiased description of the 'war of currents'. A bit slower in the middle but super interesting in the beginning and in the end. Focuses more on George Westinghouse than it does on Nikola Tesla, for whom I took up the book. However, I harbor no regrets in learning about Westinghouse and Edison in addition. ...more
Author Annabelle Leigha
A good history of elelctricty, however not what I was expecting. Also the graphic depiction of electrocuting a dog made me physically sick. That part could have been avoided or glossed over.
Aug 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Buy this book, keep it, and reference it for the History of Electricity.
The author writes the 'story' in narrative form, making it a complete history of the times as she smoothly inserted details of the Chemistry and Physics; Science of the day. There is drama around the controversies as well as the temperaments of the scientists and their families. You will discover many names of contributors to Science, Electricity and Magnetism all across the World; not just the three names in the Title of t
Jan 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a nice blend of biography and history. It does a good job capturing the many facets of early electrification including the individuals, the technology, and the businesses. I think the biographical parts were some of the most interesting, but it helps that they are embedded in the larger story. This properly depicts the men as important players embedded in a larger world. This gives a more balanced view of all of them and their work and avoids the pitfall some biographies fall into o ...more
John Lybrand
Sep 02, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I learned a lot from this book. Of course I knew some of the story: the invention of the light bulb, the war between AC and DC power, but I never really read anything going into much detail of what happened next. That's really what this book is about. The author devotes a chapter to the Faraday, Maxwell, et al., and Edison's invention of the light bulb. But the story really starts after that. While Edison is trying to deploy direct current power stations, Westinghouse enters with an alternating ...more
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
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