BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jill Jonnes, author of "Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World," why did you write this book?
JILL JONNES, AUTHOR, "EMPIRES OF LIGHT": Well, I was actually reading an old biography of George Westinghouse, and there`s several chapters devoted to this war of the electric current. And what caught me was this description of Thomas Edison and how he helped develop and promote the first use of the electric chair as a tactic to smear Westinghouse, who was his rival in this race, this very bitter business rivalry and corporate feud as to who would dominate this nascent electrical industry that the two of them were racing to develop.
And I just found that so astonishing. I thought of Edison as a benevolent genius, kind of a folksy and wonderful person. This was a dark side of him that I really didn`t know. And when I looked into the rest of the story, I just find it so compelling. The idea of a world in which there wasn`t electricity was very fascinating idea, as a historian, to try and take you back to that time and then develop this wonderful set of characters, as they really struggled to make electricity a commonplace.
LAMB: How did you go about it?
JONNES: Well, I think the way you research most history. You start by looking at the books others have written. And there are lots of books about Edison, a few books about Nikola Tesla, who`s a key character in this because he develops the alternating system of electricity which we use to this day, and George Westinghouse, who was a very famous Pittsburgh corporate warrior. And -- but with him, there were really only these two old biographies. So he was actually the most illusive of the three.
LAMB: Timeframe for the book.
JONNES: The book really starts in 1879, when Edison has invented the lightbulb, and it ends in 1897, when they celebrate the first transmission of alternating current electricity 26 miles, from Niagara Falls to Buffalo. And that`s really the beginning of the electric grid, which just collapsed in the summer.
LAMB: In 1879, how much electricity was there in the United States?
JONNES: Very little. There was electricity that was basically run off of batteries, and that ran the telegraph, a very small number of telephones, and there were also starting in the very early 1880s something called arc lights, and those did run off of generators -- in fact, off of alternating current generators. And they were a very brilliant, kind of sizzling form of light. They functioned by having these two carbon pencils, and the electricity kind of jumped between them. And that created this very, almost painful-to-look-at light. So they would -- it could only be used in extremely large spaces or outdoors. And so you would have in a city a very tall pole, almost like a mast, and at the top would be these arc lights. And that would light up big public spaces.
LAMB: Homes lighted anywhere in 1879?
JONNES: Not with electricity. What Edison boasted to the world that he would do, is he would subdivide the light. And what he meant by this was the electric light that now was so brilliant and bright in public spaces. What most houses had, if they were in a city, was gas light. And this meant that gas came into your house through pipes and came to every fixture. And you had to turn it on and light it, which meant usually you had to take off the glass globe. Otherwise, what people had were kerosene lamps, which I think most of us are familiar with still from camping, and so forth, and candles. That was what you lit your house with.
LAMB: Now, you start this book by defining things like volts, amps, ohms.
JONNES: Well, Ohms is a law. Volts is a term of pressure. You know, the number of volts gives you an idea of the pressure that`s sending the electricity out. Amps is actually just the amount of power. And then resistance is -- electricity goes out generally on a copper wire, and that substance is creating a resistance to the electricity as it travels on it. And so the way you calculate how much electricity is going out is a function of these three, I guess, terms.
LAMB: The reason I mentioned those three, they were all three people.
LAMB: Who was Volta?
JONNES: Well, Volta was the first man -- he was an Italian count -- to create a functional battery. And one of the things that was fun about doing these books was learning the people behind the names. And he put together a battery that would be alternating disks of zinc and copper, and in between would be saturated, like, thick paper. And he then put in various saline solutions. And once these things all got going, they created electricity, because before that, the only way you could manufacture electricity was through something called an electrostatic machine, and you would rub this, and it would -- the rubbing would create electricity, which you then would capture in a leaden jar. And it would stay there maybe for a few days, and if you touched the jar, big jolts of electricity would come out.
And so I have a chapter that describes this very early history of electricity, and it`s starting with amber. You rub amber and you get an electrostatic charge. And that was really the first clue that there was this invisible energy that could make things happen. But how did you harness it? And how did you come to understand it? Because it is invisible.
LAMB: Who was Ampere?
JONNES: Well, Ampere was a very brilliant French mathematician, and really, what he did was just to create some mathematical understandings of electricity as it was being developed. So he was essentially developing formulas.
LAMB: Who was Ohm?
JONNES: He was a German, and he was the man that came up with Ohm`s law, which is volts equals amps times resistance.
LAMB: So there you have an Italian, a Frenchman and a German.
LAMB: And then there`s a guy name Kelvin. I don`t know much about electricity, and...
JONNES: Lord Kelvin. He was originally known as Sir William Thomson. And what he was most famous for was helping to lay the Atlantic cable and make it work between England and the United States. And that was a huge accomplishment. And he also created -- figured out all kinds of aspects, again, of the physical nature of electricity. And he plays a very important role in one aspect of the war of the electric currents.
LAMB: Who else is in the picture?
JONNES: Well, to the left of Lord Kelvin is George Westinghouse. And we don`t know who`s to the right. But they`re all at Westinghouse`s factory in Pittsburgh. And I should say that Westinghouse was a man who had very few photos. I guess it`s kind of indicative of the different personalities here that Westinghouse -- I don`t think there`s probably even 20 photos of him, as opposed to someone like Edison, who was an enormously famous celebrity and beloved of the press. There may be thousands of photos of Edison, but there are certainly hundreds.
LAMB: Thomas Alva Edison. What can you tell us about him?
JONNES: Well, he was a wonderfully interesting man. He was obviously our greatest inventor. He still remains so. He has more than a thousand patents, which remains the record for any one American inventor. And at this particular moment, he had already invented the quadruplex telegraph. He was very famous for that. Even more astonishing, because it was completely original, he had invented the talking phonograph. And so as he -- and he had many smaller kinds of inventions, but those were his really big ones and that he had become very wealthy from.
And so as we start this book in 1879, a friend has convinced him that he should get interested in electricity and takes him off to see some arc lights at a factory in Connecticut.
LAMB: Where`s he living now?
JONNES: He`s opened his so-called "invention factory" in Menlo Park, New Jersey, which is a very bucolic, rural spot, so that he -- his feeling is that he`s brought all his men and equipment and machines out from Newark, and this way, they can really work completely unimpeded or unbothered by anything. And it`s right on the Pennsylvania railroad line, so that people can get back and forth very easily.
And once he sees these arc lights, he is set afire with ambition. He thinks this is the future and it`s just starting, and I still have a chance. And he`s not interested in arc lights. To him, that`s something that`s very limited because it`s only going to be in the public and in big spaces. He wants to subdivide the light. And he rushes back to Menlo Park and he starts working on inventing a functional incandescent lightbulb because for decades, various inventors on the continent and in the United States had been trying to figure out how to do this.
And Edison has this incredible innate sense of PR, and he`s very beloved of the newspapers because he has this folksy persona. He wears these blue workmen`s outfits and he`s always covered with grease, and he kind of makes these very amusing remarks. So the press loves him. And within a week of visiting the arc light inventors up in Connecticut, he summons a reporter from "The New York Sun" to announce that he has prevailed, he has invented an incandescent lightbulb. And that`s not all he is announcing. He`s announcing that he is going to bring electricity to lower Manhattan. He`s going to have a central station that operates a big generator, and he`s going to kill off gas in America. So he`s made a very large claim for himself.
LAMB: When did he start becoming deaf?
JONNES: He was actually deaf -- his deafness began even as a teenager. And I have a little story in the book, which -- he`s told different stories over time, but Paul Israel, who`s one of the sort of top scholars of Edison, finds this the most plausible, which is that he worked as a young man on the railroad, starting at about age 12 and selling newspapers. And he was trying to get onto a train and not making it when one of the conductors reached down to get him and pulled on his ears. And he said from that moment on, his ear never was quite the same.
And he wasn`t completely deaf. I mean, his deafness got worse. But one of the endearing aspects of Edison is he was such an optimist about everything. And so to him, even his deafness was an advantage because it kind of sealed off a lot of the distractions of life.
LAMB: There`s a picture of him in the book taking a nap. Why did that make it to the book?
JONNES: Well, that was very typical of Edison. He was a real workaholic. He loved what he did, and he would get completely caught up in his work. And then all of a sudden, he`d be exhausted and he would take a nap, but under a table, you know, on top of a chair. It just -- and so when I saw that picture, which actually is at the Smithsonian as an exhibit, I thought, I really want to have that.
LAMB: Where was he from originally? Married? Children?
JONNES: Well, he grew up in Michigan. Really -- his mother ran a rooming house. His father was not a very successful man who`d tried various trades. And Edison was very much self-taught. He taught himself to be a telegrapher, and he became the best telegrapher. And it was really that that got him into inventing. He was trying to figure how to make telegraphs work better. It was also how he knew quite a bit about electricity.
About the time that he moved to Menlo Park, he married and had several small children. And then later, his wife, who I think one could safely say was very neglected because, really, what he was in love with was his work -- she died, and he then married a very young, lovely woman, had some more children with her. I think, in the end, he had about five kids. And that was his married life.
LAMB: Was he political at all?
JONNES: He was a Republican. But no, he was not very political. Really, his life was his inventions and developing them. As an inventor, he was completely interested in the commercial applications of whatever he invented. And if it couldn`t be made commercial, he wasn`t interested.
LAMB: Before we go on, can you describe the difference between direct current electricity and alternating current, AC versus DC?
JONNES: DC, the electrons just move in one straight line along the copper wire that is conducting them. And it can`t go very far. So one of Edison`s problems, though he didn`t see it as a problem, was that his direct current generators only could send electricity maybe about half a mile -- as they improved, maybe three quarters or a mile. So his vision, when he thought of electrifying the world, was that there would be an Edison generator about every mile. So you can see he was planning to be very rich.
Alternating current, however, goes like this. It`s got a frequency, and it`s moving. And so it sets up a little electromagnetic field around it. And when you take alternating current wires and you wind them around one another in a certain kind of a way, you can increase the voltage enough that you can send it very long distances.
And that was Westinghouse`s real contribution to this early field, was that he created a commercial transformer, because that`s what they`re called. You transform the electricity up. You send it where you want to send it, and there`s a transformer at the other side, and with many fewer coils of electricity. And that brings the electricity down to a -- you know, a level that`s safe for people to then use it in their appliances and have it come in and light their houses.
LAMB: Do you have an electricity background of any kind?
JONNES: No. I have to say I did not know a thing about electricity when I started this book. My husband is a scientist, and he was very amused at the idea that I was writing a book about electricity.
LAMB: Where`s your headquarters?
JONNES: I live in Baltimore.
LAMB: Doing what there full-time?
JONNES: I`m a historian and I write books.
LAMB: And what book is this for you?
JONNES: This is book three.
LAMB: There are drawings in here. I mean, there`s schematics and stuff like that. Where did you go to get this kind of information? How did you learn it?
JONNES: Well, the schematics are present in many books that are trying to explain about electricity because since it is invisible, it helps to have it laid out for you. And so I found numerous schematics that I found very helpful because, as I say, I knew nothing about electricity, and I had my father-in-law, John Ross, who`s an artist, render them for me so that that would help others who were learning about the "mysterious fluid," as it was called, get some sort of an understanding of electricity.
LAMB: How did you make sure that you were right about all this?
JONNES: I had many people read the book.
LAMB: Did you have to go to experts on -- electrical engineers or something like that?
JONNES: No. I had -- I mean, well, yes, some of these people were experts, obviously. One of the people I had read it was my husband.
LAMB: What kind of a scientist is he?
JONNES: He`s actually a doctor and a neuroscientist and a geneticist.
LAMB: Your second person that you talk about is this fellow right here. Is it Nikola or...
JONNES: Nikola Tesla.
LAMB: Nikola Tesla. How old would he have been in this picture?
JONNES: Probably about 22.
LAMB: What`s his story?
JONNES: Well, Nikola Tesla is truly one of the great characters, and I had heard of him, but I really didn`t know that much about him until I started working on this. And he is a very brilliant Serbian immigrant whose passion was electricity. And he came to Paris to work in the Edison factory there, and he had had this great epiphany, even before he arrived in Paris, about alternating current.
LAMB: What year would that have been?
JONNES: That would have been in the late 1870s.
LAMB: So we`re still around 1879?
JONNES: Right. So...
LAMB: What was...
JONNES: His epiphany came. He came to work for Edison Electric in 1882. So when the Pearl Street Station gets up and running in Manhattan, Edison, who has visions of a worldwide empire, has already sent his aide, Charles Batchelor, to Paris to begin Continental Edison. And Nikola Tesla goes there to work for him.
And Tesla has many strange phobias, one of which -- he likes to do everything in threes. So when he would start his morning before he went to work there, he would go and swim laps at a pool on the Seine, and he always did 27 laps. And when he would walk, he would try and make sure that he didn`t walk, you know, more than something that was divisible by three. He had a horror of germs. He couldn`t stand to be in the same room as women with pearls. So -- but he was very charming and very erudite.
Now, Edison was really a self-educated man. He read his way through entire libraries. But Tesla had a university education, and so he came into this from a much more educated standpoint. And as I say, he had a passion for electricity. And no one had been able to figure out how you could run a motor on alternating current. Edison used direct current, and it was fine for lights and it was fine for motors. So when he went out to sell his product to people -- you know, Let me bring electricity into your factory, let me bring electricity into your office -- he could offer not only lights but machines.
This was not true for alternating current and Tesla was the one who figured out in his mind how to create a motor that would operate on alternating current. And when he went to work for Edison in Paris, he tried to convince them that alternating current was a superior form of technology to DC.
But you have to imagine the circumstances. Tesla is this very junior engineer. He`s a Serbian, who`s a -- you know, kind of an eccentric fellow. Edison is world-famous. He`s created electricity. He`s invented the lightbulb. He`s invented everything that makes the lightbulb work. I mean, he has come up with the generators in his factory. He has come up with all the wiring systems, the switches. It`s a huge accomplishment. And so who`s to pay any attention to Nikola Tesla? You know, he just seems like a dreamer.
He leaves Paris after a couple of years and goes to New York, still wanting to convince Edison that alternating current is the way to go. And he can`t convince Edison. Edison, for one thing, believes that alternating current is dangerous because it`s operating at these higher voltages, and he really wants nothing to do with it.
But there`s another aspect to it, I believe, which is that Edison took enormous pride in the fact that he had developed every aspect of this system. And for him, the idea of adopting someone else`s technology as superior to his, I think, was a bitter pill, and he wanted nothing to do with it. And so Tesla quit, and he was cottoning on to the American system of business and decided he was going to be very practical. And so he started -- went into business with a few investors and started an arc light company. And essentially, he was cheated. And meanwhile, he`s still trying to find someone to take up this alternating current engine and a better system of transmission, called polyphase electricity.
LAMB: Now, what about his personal life? Did he ever marry?
JONNES: He never married. And as very strange as this will sound, his great love in life was a white pigeon.
LAMB: Oh, I just happen to have a picture of that pigeon that you have from this book, right here. Is this the pigeon?
JONNES: Apparently so. That comes from the Tesla Museum in Belgrade. As I say, Tesla was a very strange man. He had loads of friends. He was actually very prominent in New York society, once he became famous. But he had a real affinity only for pigeons. And this was the pigeon that he particularly loved, and as evidence, there`s the photo of it.
LAMB: Well, near the end of the book -- and I`ll try to find it -- might be useful to read that part of him because once you read this, it does change your view of this man. You get this out of John J. O`Neill`s book. Now, who is he?
JONNES: He was a science editor at "The Herald Tribune" and a great friend and admirer of Tesla`s, and he wrote the first biography of him. And to me, I mean, it was just such a mesmerizing book because it`s very saturated with Tesla and the person he was.
LAMB: You start by writing -- you say, "One evening, the elderly, almost cadaverous Nikola Tesla told John J. O`Neill about the white pigeon while they were sitting and visiting in the lobby of the Hotel New Yorker." Is that the same Hotel New Yorker that`s on 8th Avenue right now?
LAMB: Quote, "I loved that pigeon. Yes, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was purpose in my life. Then one night, as I was lying in bed in the dark solving problems, as usual, she flew in through the open window and stood on my desk. As I looked at her, I knew she wanted to tell me she was dying. When the pigeon died, something went out of my life. Up to that time, I knew with certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program. But when that something went out of my life, I knew my life`s work was finished."
Did John O`Neill go on to describe any more about that, what he said about the pigeon?
JONNES: That was really pretty much what he had to say. And I think John O`Neill was very taken aback because it was a confession, really, from someone he admired an enormous amount. And it`s really quite poignant.
LAMB: And this was near the end of his life?
LAMB: And at the end, if I get it right, he was -- he died when he was 86 years old...
LAMB: ...in 1943.
LAMB: Had he lost his mind, or was this really...
JONNES: Well, I think he was always very eccentric, and in many ways, lived in his own world. The reality with Tesla is that he invented many, many things. Only alternating current ever really became a commercial reality. And Tesla has a very fervent following of people who are fascinated by him because he invented all kinds of things that, as I say, never were commercially developed but were very prescient.
For instance, he invented the remote control. And this was so far -- he was so far ahead of everyone, that no one knew what to make of it. He developed a huge boat. It just looked like a big toy. And he could make it -- you know, using remote control -- this is the 1890`s. Using remote control, he`s sending it around on the water. And people just -- it wouldn`t occur to them, Oh, well, we`ll use this remote control to open and close doors or to turn things on and off. It just was like magic to them. He also was way ahead on radio when his entire laboratory burned down. Tesla was a man who had many dramatic turns in his life. And Marconi beat him to it.
LAMB: How did his lab burn down?
JONNES: Well, he shared the lab -- it was downtown, in lower Manhattan. He shared it with another factory, and this factory had all kinds of grease and flammable stuff around. So it didn`t have anything to do with his lab. It had nothing to do with electricity. He just really had the bad luck to be in a building that went up in flames because of another tenant.
LAMB: What year would that have been?
JONNES: That must have been about 1895 or `96.
LAMB: But you set it up here that he was fighting Edison for AC versus DC.
JONNES: Right. So what happens is, Edison has invented the lightbulb. In 1882, he gets this Pearl Street Station up and running, and you know, it`s a great historic accomplishment -- September 4, 1882. And Edison then has all kinds of other competitors, who are basically infringing on various patents. And so he figures, eventually, his legions of lawyers -- and he had legions of lawyers, would fire off these other people and they would be gone from the scene and he would have the electrical world to himself.
And then in 1886 -- so Edison`s been up and running for four years. He`s expanding all over the place. All of a sudden, along comes George Westinghouse. Now, these other people that Edison has as competitors he doesn`t take very seriously because they are infringing on his technology. Westinghouse is really a different story. He`s a very successful, very bold Pittsburgh entrepreneur. He has two extremely successful companies, plenty of money and a different kind of technology, which is this alternating current that, you know, gets stepped up on transformers and stepped down.
So imagine that you're a salesman for Edison and you go into a fast-growing American city or town -- and America is growing fast, we're having record levels of immigration and it's the great era of urbanization. So imagine you go in and you say, OK, we would like to sell you an electric generator that will operate all your lights, it`ll operate all your machines, but it can`t go more than a mile. The Westinghouse people come to the same town and say, we`d like to sell you our alternating current generator, and as your town grows we can expand it. All you`ll need is this one generating system. We can put it on the outskirts of town because we can send the electricity in.
Well, who do you think you are going to go with? Now, the disadvantage that Westinghouse had was that he did not have -- he could not run motors. He had not met Nikola Tesla, nor had Nikola Tesla announced to the world his great invention of a motor that operated on alternating current.
So -- but already, alternating current very quickly became a significant problem and competition for Edison. And the irony of all this is that Edison actually also had patents to European-developed alternating current and he could certainly have incorporated that, and, in fact, everyone in his company was begging him to.
But as I say, he was very stubborn. I think he had enormous sense of pride. And he clung to the idea that alternating current was unsafe. And instead, what he decided to do was to use his enormous prestige and influence to try and drive the stake through the heart of anything to do with alternating current.
LAMB: George Westinghouse was, you say, from Pittsburgh. What kind of education did he have? Was he a family man? What was he like personally?
JONNES: Well, he was -- in the end, he was actually my favorite of these three -- very compelling, idealistic man. Very reserved in public, but very charismatic and dynamic in private. And he had grown up in Schenectady. His father operated an agricultural implements shop. His father also invented things, and put them together.
So, Westinghouse had a very practical, you know, sort of on the ground education. He briefly went to college, which he did not like. He fought in the Civil War, and he made his fortune inventing air brakes. That`s hard for us to believe, but when America operated on railroads and trains, until the air brake came along, which was -- oh, I guess in the 1870s, you couldn`t stop a train very easily. You had men who would jump off down from the roof of the train, the car, and turn these things to try and slow it down.
So the one-legged trainman or brakeman was a fixture of gilded-age America until Westinghouse came up with these air brakes so the engineer of the train could stop the train. And so, you can imagine he made a great fortune on this, in part because he was a very, very good businessman.
He then also -- using electricity developed whole systems of signaling for trains. So he was really someone who had made a fortune in the toughest corporate atmosphere, which was the world of railroads. And now, all of a sudden, he appears. And when Edison heard this, he was very angry. He said, tell Westinghouse to stick to air brakes. I mean, he thought that electricity was his arena and stay out. And he also felt -- he said, as sure as anything, Westinghouse is going to kill people with this -- with his AC and Edison was very concerned that electricity be seen as benign, be seen as safe, so that it could spread widely without people worrying that it would kill you.
LAMB: Married? Children?
JONNES: Westinghouse was totally devoted to his wife -- unlike Edison, who had wives but you know, was very neglectful of them. He had a very sweet relationship and marriage with her. He especially set up wherever he was, that there will be a telegraph or a telephone so that he could speak to his wife every day, no matter where he was. And he had one son with her.
LAMB: Difference in age of these three?
JONNES: That actually -- Edison and Westinghouse are about the same. They are in their 30s as this whole war of the electric currents gets going and develops, and Tesla is a bit younger than they are, but not by much. So he might be about 30, and they would both be about 35.
LAMB: I wrote down the three men, and when they died? George Westinghouse died March 12, 1914, he was 68.
LAMB: And Edison died 1931. He was 84. And Tesla died 1943, he was 86.
LAMB: Money. Who had the most money along the way in this process? Who made the most?
JONNES: I guess both -- from electricity, the person who made the most money finally was Westinghouse, and that is because his technology triumphed. Edison certainly made money on electricity. And he had -- he was backed by J.P. Morgan and various Wall Street money men, but as the technology took far longer to develop than they ever expected -- so you remember, I had mentioned that in 1879, Edison announces I`m going to, you know, light up Manhattan and gives the impression it will be a matter of weeks or months.
Well, actually it was almost three years. And this was far longer than anyone expected, and there were many, many pitfalls and problems. In the end, he -- Edison put up a lot of his own money in order to develop his company. But he did have Wall Street behind him.
Westinghouse had a lot of his own money and he had Pittsburgh money behind him.
Tesla never had any kind of a successful company. And what happens is -- so Westinghouse has come on the scene, he`s started -- he`s announced he is starting this company, it`s early 1886. By the end of that year, in 1886, they run, they set up and get running their first project, which is a department store in Buffalo. And what was interesting about this is -- this is a hugely historic event, but in typical Westinghouse fashion, he says nothing about this to the newspapers or anyone else.
When anything that happens with Edison, he is full of ballyhoo, everyone knows it`s happened. He`s boasted about it, he`s promoted it. He is terrified of, you know, any competitors. Westinghouse is very, you know, kind of quiet.
And so around Thanksgiving of 1886, they run their first alternating current generator and send power a distance into these -- the fanciest department store in Buffalo, Adam and Meldrum, and everyone comes to see this. And it is, you know, quite an accomplishment.
And that`s the beginning. But, still, Westinghouse doesn`t have a motor. And in 1886 -- almost a year -- I mean 1888, so almost a year later, is when Tesla finally, he`s managed, you know, to get himself some backers. He has written his patents, he`s developed his machines, and he has begun to meet important people. And he is persuaded to go to Columbia College and before the world of professional engineers deliver a lecture and demonstrate all of his machines.
And this is a sensation. I mean, everyone understands immediately that here is a new electrical titan and that this is, in fact, he could be on the level with an Edison.
And Westinghouse, who`s heard about this even before it happens, immediately swoops in and buys those patents. Because Westinghouse is very willing to -- he himself is an inventor, Westinghouse. And he always remembers how much trouble he had when he was trying to convince people to underwrite the air brake, to finance him. So he is very generous to inventors of any kind. He swoops in, he buys Tesla`s patent. He brings him to Pittsburgh. And the whole electrical fraternity is kind of abuzz, because now Westinghouse is going to have what he`s lacked in his fight with Edison, and that is the motor.
LAMB: Is this all public at the time? Is it talked about in the newspapers?
JONNES: Oh, yes, very much so.
LAMB: Is it interest to the public at large?
JONNES: Hugely of interest. Because this is this era, the gilded age, at the end of the 19th century, when people are enormously interested in technology of every kind. Technology has changed the world so dramatically already. There is a sense that everyone is in the middle of a continuing revolution. You look at railroads first of all, they`ve eliminated space in a way -- or distance in a way nothing else has. The telegraph has done it even more so. When you think -- I give in my book the example of J.P. Morgan, because it used to be to hear from their office in London would take weeks. Now it takes seconds.
So there is this tremendous sense of the world shifting under your feet and becoming smaller and closer. And people looked at the fortunes that were made from things like railroads and the telegraph, they are very interested in a technology that is going to light up the world, not with a flame, but, you know, with something -- with the mellow light of an Italian sunset was one description.
And also, it`s going to run machines. One of the things that was so interesting about working on this book was trying to re-create the world without electricity. This world where you got everywhere, either, you know, on a horse or on a railroad or on a boat or on your feet. And then also where just the rhythms of daylight were so much more part of people`s lives. And that there weren`t machines. Anything -- I mean, there were steam engines, but most ordinary people didn`t have machines in their lives. So almost anything you did, it was just pure human power or horsepower.
LAMB: One of the things that comes out of your book is the way that Thomas Edison treated dogs.
JONNES: Well, this takes us to the beginning of the war of the electric currents. And the war of electric currents is a battle that went on, really, you know, over a period of almost -- well, I guess you could say probably about -- just under 10 years, and it begins with Edison deciding that he is going to change his mind that how he feels about capital punishment. He had always stated publicly that he was against it. And promote not only capital punishment, but capital punishment of the very specific sort -- electrocution. And not only electrocution, but electrocution using alternating current generators from the Westinghouse Company.
And I date the beginning of the war of electric currents to December 8, 1887. So Westinghouse`s company has been up and running for almost two years. His first successful client, this department store in Buffalo, was a year previous. We don`t really know what set Edison off on this decision to really launch what I consider the most vicious and macabre feud in American corporate history.
But something had happened, and he changed his mind and he now not only endorsed this idea, but helped actively to promote it. And one of the ways that he did this -- it`s a very strange fellow named Harold Brown sort of steps out of nowhere and begins attacking Westinghouse. And as far as anyone has been able to figure out -- he was self-appointed sort of anti-AC warrior. But he was a wonderful convenience for Edison, who was happy to do whatever he could to help him and eventually actually put him on his payroll secretly.
And so Harold Brown needed to show scientifically that alternating current should be taken up by the New York State Death Commission as opposed to anything else, any other kind of electricity. So he began going out to Edison`s -- Edison now had a new, bigger and more wonderful laboratory out in West Orange. He left Menlo Park and he was out in a sort of industrial scale of invention.
LAMB: And West Orange is today open to the public?
JONNES: Well, actually, yes. And it`s been preserved by the National Park Service. So, he goes out there and they buy dogs from local children, and they start electrocuting dogs, and what they are basically trying to figure out is how much more quickly you can electrocute a dog with AC versus DC And once they`ve done this, then he goes back into Manhattan.
No one knows this is going on. He goes back into Manhattan and invites the electrical engineers and overall fraternity to a demonstration. He doesn`t say what it is he is going to do. And they all turn out to see this. And he begins electrocuting these dogs, and it`s just appalling. And it isn`t a convincing demonstration, because he begins by trying to electrocute them with direct current. And the dogs don`t die right away, but obviously they are being tormented and they are in great distress. And...
LAMB: What does he tell them, why he -- I mean, he is the direct current man. Why is he...
JONNES: Well, he wants to show that they don`t die from direct current. And then he is going to apply the alternating current. By the time he gets to the point that he is going to apply the alternating current, the crowd is in such an uproar because this is so cruel, such a cruel thing to see, that he`s never -- he kills the dog off with alternating current, but it`s the same dog he has given direct current to. He is not able to complete the full range of demonstration that he wanted to make.
He does do that subsequently. And then when the State Death Commission is not 100 percent convinced, Edison steps forward and offers his Menlo Park laboratory. And at that demonstration, they kill not just dogs, but also a calf and a horse. And this is enough to convince the state that, yes, what they would need is some Westinghouse generators to operate their electric chairs. And Harold Brown then further gets himself appointed official New York state executioner.
LAMB: Why does Thomas Edison want the New York state people to use the alternate -- the AC of Westinghouse?
JONNES: Because he wanted it to be known as the executioner`s current. And he wants -- when someone dies in the electric chair, he wants the world to think of this as being Westinghoused. And...
LAMB: Does he tell the world that?
JONNES: He doesn`t. But among the -- at headquarters all the Edison executives are kind of chortling among themselves and writing back and forth, about, how, you know, how wonderful this is.
LAMB: Does Westinghouse know what he`s up to?
JONNES: Absolutely. And he is doing -- he hires a very famous, sort of silver-tongued lawyer named Bourke Cockran, who is also a politician. Because what happens is that now they`ve now got their method of execution. But first of all, then they have to have their victim. And a man known as William Kemmler, who is referred to as the "hatchet fiend", murders his girlfriend in Buffalo, and he...
LAMB: That`s not the name he uses?
JONNES: He is known in Buffalo as John Hort. But it quickly emerges that his real name is William Kemmler and that he`s fled from Philadelphia with his paramour who he`s murdered with an ax. And he emerges as the first person who is going to die in the electric chair.
And Westinghouse then proceeds to -- as far as we can tell, there is no absolute proof. But, I mean, Kemmler couldn`t afford someone like Bourke Cockran. And there then ensues this long drama of Cockran constantly challenging and appealing the use of electricity, saying that this would be cruel and unusual punishment, because no one could really guarantee that Kemmler in fact would be killed on the first effort, and he would have then to be executed twice.
LAMB: What is the date of this?
JONNES: This all begins about -- oh, the early, I`d say early 1888. And then it`s lost. I mean, the case drags on, and Kemmler dies on August 6, 1890.
And what his lawyers tried to show is he brings people who have been struck by electricity, they`re alive. And honestly, many people -- not electricity, but by lightning. I mean, honestly, many people who were struck by lightning die. But there are people who were struck by lightning and they live.
So his point was that no one really knew what it would take to actually kill someone, electrocute someone. But he was not able to convince the court. And so William Kemmler was sentenced to die and became the first man to die in the electric chair on August 6, 1890. And, in fact, it was a terrible botch. They didn`t give enough electricity to kill him. And they thought he was dead. And the 20 or so people assembled to see him die, went up and they realized that he was still alive. People were fainting. It was so hideous. Some people had to go out in the corridor, just you know, to be ill. And they gave him a second, much more prolonged jolt of electricity, whereupon he was finished off.
LAMB: You have -- actually have this paragraphs, "But the blood was continuing to ooze from Kemmler`s small finger wound. His heart still had to be beating. The physicians around the limp figure recoiled as one yelled in horror, "Great God! He is alive." Another ordered, "Turn on the current." "See, he breathes," gasped the third." What was the impact of all this?
JONNES: Well, it didn`t seem to stop continued use of the electric chair, but it did, I think, cast some doubt on -- that you know, whether AC was a stone killer. And meanwhile, the reality remained that Westinghouse was selling his system of electricity with great leaps and bounds. And in fact -- so this is the first battle and you can say, OK, Edison won. He managed to get someone electrocuted with alternating current. And he and Harold Brown, Edison and Harold Brown, then began to work the legislatures, state legislatures in order to get alternating current banned.
But what they hadn`t figured on is that arc lights, which had really taken off and were all over the country, arc lights would be banned if you banned alternating current. And the local people who operated the arc lights would come out and testify. It was very hard for an outsider, even one so prestigious as Edison, to persuade a legislature when the locals were saying, wait, you are going to shut down this entire industry.
So that was the first battle, and I think you could safely say that yes, Edison won that, but he also lost it because at this point his refusal to take up alternating current was really creating troubles for his company. And his competitors had taken up alternating current. Of course, Westinghouse was busy suing all of them because he felt that this was his technology.
And in the end, Edison lost his company, his electric company. J.P. Morgan, who held the great majority of the stock and sort of managed it for people, in 1892 looked at how the Edison Company was doing, looked at how the Thomson-Houston company was doing, which was run by a businessman named Charles Coffin, he was a very successful shoe salesman and it turned out he was a very good, you know, electrical company chieftain.
And what he saw was that Thomson-Houston, which had taken up alternating current as a system that it offered to its customers, was making profits of 25 percent. The Edison Company, which did not use that technology, was making profits of 12 percent. And he decided he was going to merge these two companies and create an entity called General Electric, and that Edison was going to be out. And this was a very, very bitter blow to Edison. He had tremendous pride in having -- it was really his greatest work. And ...
LAMB: So, because we are almost out of time. You go up to where we are today. You still have the Westinghouse Corporation. You know, wasn`t broadcasting, it`s no longer.
LAMB: General Electric. And what about Tesla, is there anything left from him?
JONNES: There is really nothing left of Tesla. And because we are almost out of time, let me just say quickly that the war of the electric currents continued in two other big battlefields. One was Chicago of 1893, the White City, which was an incredible showcase for electricity. And that was another big battle. Now it`s between GE and Westinghouse. And Westinghouse really wanted this. And he came out of near bankruptcy to arrive in Chicago, and essentially just swooped in and stole that contract from GE, by simply offering a far better deal.
And then the next battleground was Niagara Falls, again a J.P. Morgan enterprise. And who would transmit alternating current? And in this case, having the Tesla patent was absolutely the trump card. Remember, GE is J.P. Morgan`s entity. You can imagine, he desperately would have liked them to do the Niagara power business, but he in the end, their electrical advisers said to them, you know, this is a contract which has to go to Westinghouse because the Tesla patents are unique and invaluable. And actually, in the end, Westinghouse had to come to a patent sharing agreement with GE, because he was so repeatedly attacked by them, you know, on Wall Street that he felt like he would lose his company.
LAMB: In the end, these three men, how were they financially?
JONNES: Well, in the end, Edison was always rich, in part because he got into the movie business, because of his phonograph. And he made lots and lots of royalties from that. Westinghouse had plenty of money, he had 50,000 employees, many businesses. You know, he was a real corporate titan in a way that Edison wasn`t, because he was backed by Wall Street in ways that Edison couldn`t be. Because after that whole episode with J.P. Morgan losing his company, Edison wanted nothing more to do with Wall Street.
Tesla really sank into penury. I mean, it`s heartbreaking. He actually has given up his patents, his royalties in order to save Westinghouse`s electric company at some point. Because he thought he was on -- at the cusp of a big career, in which he would have many patents, many products and many riches. And it just didn`t work out that way. Other things that he tried to do he never could commercially develop. And so, he was actually supported in part by the Serbian government, and in part -- I guess the Yugoslav government, and in part by the Westinghouse company, but actually not in a very magnificent way.
LAMB: How long did this take you to do?
JONNES: Two years.
LAMB: What was the toughest part of it?
JONNES: I would say learning to understand how electricity worked.
LAMB: The cover of this book has a photograph of the F.W. Woolworth building?
LAMB: Where is that?
JONNES: If you stand at City Hall in lower Manhattan and you look to your right and up, you would see exactly this.
LAMB: And does it still look like this today?
JONNES: Oh, yes. Just as magnificent.
LAMB: Is it lighted like this today?
JONNES: You know, that I don`t know. I guess I haven`t even been -- I go to Manhattan often, but I guess I haven`t been down at City Hall to see it. But it wouldn`t surprise me.
LAMB: What`s next for Jill Jonnes?
JONNES: Well, it`s another gilded age book, but I don`t want to say too much more than that. Also business and technology.
LAMB: The fellow that endorses your book, Erik Larson, who was here to talk about his book, "In the White City," said about the same thing that you do. You`d think we`d have a clash; he endorses your book. Are you going to clash on the same subjects?
JONNES: No. Because I know what I`m writing about and I have some idea what Eric is writing about, and I think they are, you know, very different things. So I think we`ll be fine.
LAMB: Again, the cover of the book, "Empires of Light." Our guest has been Jill Jonnes. Thank you very much for joining us.
JONNES: Thank you so much for having me.
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