How America got the electric light bulb—a battle between intellectual giants—is the subject of Graham Moore’s fine new novel. Drawing on historical sources, Moore has created characters of equal parts charm and villainy—complicated men who grapple with opposite poles of their nature: all-out ambition versus belief in the greater good.
A triangle of brilliant men is at the heart of this tale. Thomas Edison, the great man himself, is perhaps not the hero we’ve always thought, while his rival, the industrialist George Westinghouse, is perhaps (perhaps…) the better man. At the apex of the triangle is one of the world’s towering intellects, Nikola Tesla, whose genius and loyalty the other two men attempt to harness for their own ends.
In the midst of it all is a callow, young lawyer fresh out of Columbia Law School. Westinghouse hires 26-year-old Paul Cravath, a prodigy in his own right, to represent him in a law suit brought by Edison over patent infringement. The stakes are immense—a case to overwhelm even the most seasoned attorney—and Cravath finds himself involved in far more than he bargained for: deceit, betrayal, madness, even attempted murder.
Today, the lowly light bulb would seem a mere blip in the scheme of things, hardly a candidate for an epic battle of technology and brains. Nonetheless, the little pear-shaped device played an out-sized role in the electrification of the U.S.—a grand achievement that converted night into day and ended a life of darkness and drudgery for millions.
As much as we take the light bulb for granted, getting it to work was no easy matter. Still more important was determining the type of current, direct or alternating, that would carry electrons to the bulb. Finding that solution drove minds to distraction…and possible criminality.
It’s a fascinating story, but the novel is uneven. Perhaps unable to resist an appeal to less technologically inclined readers, the author falls back on a romantic subplot. Agnes Huntington was, in real life, Paul Cravath’s love interest, but her role here is over-drawn—it comes off as forced, improbable, even somewhat silly. In his end notes, Moore says he adhered to historical sources for most characters but that he had only barest outline when it came to Agnes. As a result, her deep involvement in the Edison-Westinghouse rivalry is total fabrication—and reads like it.
Too bad, really, because the stuff of history, especially this history, is damned exciting on its own. It’s almost as if Moore didn’t trust his readers’ intelligence, or maybe he doubted his own powers of storytelling. But he shouldn’t have worried: for the most part, he has written a compelling story of high-stakes scientific rivalry.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.