History tells us that Edison invented the first incandescent lamp in 1879, but if the man himself saw what we call a light bulb today he would hardly recognise his creation: it has a different shape, uses a different filament and, most importantly, a different electric current. The latter would have been of special significance to the staunch proponent of DC who never accepted the idea of AC. But even this does not begin to describe how Edison must have felt about his greatest achievement.
In Anthony McCarten’s novel Brilliance we meet Thomas Alva Edison, alternately, at the peak of his career and half a century later, in 1929, when the 82-year-old is supposed to attend a state ceremony to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his most famous invention. By this time, what had previously looked like a mission to lead humankind to its bright future, has become a source of deep disillusionment. An ardent follower of Thomas Paine, who famously proclaimed that “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good”, he has been taught by reality that light and enlightenment do not always go hand in hand. So, instead of joining the celebrations, Edison gives his minders the slip, leaving a train bound for the jubilee site, and stays, instead, on a dilapidated platform.
The narrative goes back and forth between this day and the events of the previous century, tracing the protagonist’s path from a paper boy to “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, from the founder of Edison General Electric to a recluse hiding away in the mountains. But the author does not attempt to provide a new biography of Edison here, calling his book “a fiction based on fact [which] relies on the discerning reader to weigh the two commodities”. His research seems solid, allowing him to weave some of the lesser-known facts (or fictions) into the novel.
Thus, we learn that the inventor, who was deaf for most of his life, found his environs incredibly noisy, such was his ability to perceive the slightest vibration. We see him in 1878, still working on his lamp, already aware of the fact that “you don’t make money from improving the world, you make it from its destruction”. There are scenes of his family life, where he communicates with his wife by Morse code. Most crucially, perhaps, we witness an occasion when an engineer from the New York State Legislature proposes that criminals should be electrocuted by a machine that would be associated with the name of Edison’s main rival, George Westinghouse. Jumping at his chance to discredit the dreaded AC, the inventor welcomes the idea and immediately sends a wire: “JPM STOP URGENT ATTENTION STOP HAVE SOLVED TODAY PROBLEM OF AC VERSUS DC CONTEST STOP HARD AT WORK STOP TAE”.
If the initials TAE, which frequently appear in the book, take some getting used to, those of JPM need less explanation. They belong to the formidable JP Morgan, who funds Edison’s work, whose “nose had saved him millions of dollars”, not just metaphorically. JPM, it transpires, has “a vision, of a simpler society. Where bankers play a larger role. A system devoid of warring greedy small companies, always duplicating the services of near rivals, indulging in ruinous competition. Inefficiency. That’s our great enemy today. Inefficiencies in the market, brought on by rampant competition.”
The pages dedicated to JPM give some important insights into the history of banking, especially if read alongside current financial news. One of “Morgan’s Laws”, which states that “a banker’s money should never be on display lest his clients wonder at whose expense it has been acquired”, has certainly been much quoted in recent years. However, JPM does not come across as a mere epitome of greed, at least if you believe his reflection on social injustice. When he talks about bankers being “men of high principles, defenders of the poor, fully independent, unrestricted, who, upon their deaths will be honoured in every civic square and department store”, we hesitate whether to take these words at their face value. As for TAE, he admires the entrepreneur without whom his projects would have never got off the ground, but also smells something fishy in JPM’s displays of wealth and power. When we read that “Morgan appeared to Edison a great white shark from whose path the minnows scattered”, it is hard not to smile. Back on the deserted platform, TAE takes stock of his life. “Trying to be a businessman has had a disastrous effect on me. It’s destroyed my talent” – this admission follows the memories of the experiments with the electric chair, for which the old man thinks himself damned for eternity. Such was the allure of his inventions that the first criminal to be executed by electric current proclaimed himself the happiest man alive before being strapped to the chair, glad to die for the sake of progress. A newspaper report of the execution reads: “Heretofore the proudest claim of science has been to save, or at least prolong, human life. In this instance it has been disastrously diverted from its course.” Soon after, TAE resigns, no longer able to reconcile his ideals with those of his pragmatic age.
In this “War of the Currents” the voice of reason belongs to Charles Batchelor, TAE’s close associate and an English inventor, who tries to persuade his colleague to broaden his mind, curb his ambitions and return to the spirit of scientific collaboration: “And is not the tragic history of the world the story of men impermeable to new ideas, of men locked up in their own self-created realm?”
Alas, these exhortations fall on deaf – in both senses of the word – ears. Was TAE genuinely unable to understand the advantages of AC? Did he really believe that using high-voltage current would seriously compromise safety and therefore had to be thwarted? Or was the desire to defeat his competitors at all costs the driving factor behind his actions? We shall never know. Nor shall we ever be able to fully distinguish between enlightenment and its inevitable dark sides. A definitive answer to the question of the real purpose and effect of progress on humans is not to be found in TAE’s troubled mind. Eight decades later, it still escapes us, even as we look at the largest of screens blinking with market indices of the most respectable companies, lit by thousands of electric lights.