The Power Makers

Tracing the challenges and achievements of entrepreneurs and inventors is a noble enterprise. As our economy evolves toward increasing emphasis on services, it is well to be reminded of the material basis of modern civilization and the people who formed it.

In The Power Makers, Maury Klein does this very well: He is a superb storyteller, taking the time to delineate the personalities of the many principals, putting their activities in the context of their times, and making a painstaking effort to explain the various technological developments. Perhaps nonspecialist readers can’t fully grasp the differences between direct current and alternating current, but they will readily follow the way in which the competition between these was personified in the careers of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, Jr., and what a landmark it was when the two systems were successfully blended.

Klein’s decision to cover both steam power and electric power follows the logic that steam power is a major basis for generating electricity. It also makes for a long book and increases the likelihood that some people’s favorite parts of the story may appear neglected. Improvements in iron metallurgy were critical to facilitating the upgrading of steam engines, and the problems encountered in moving from steamboats to locomotives probably warrant more attention. The tubular boiler and the steam blast receive only passing mention. Klein’s integration of steam and electrical narrative does pay off when he analyzes the development of the steam turbine soon after 1900.

A large proportion of the book deals with the period between 1880 and 1920the heyday of Edison and Westinghouse. The narrative is benchmarked with details on the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. We learn in detail about the evolution of central-station power generation, electric lighting, electric motors, and street railways. There is a titillating aside on the emergence of electrocutionbut railroad fans might have enjoyed more on the impressive development of electric trains on intercity and commuter routes in the Northeast. The description of the development of Niagara Falls hydroelectric power properly salutes the rapid rise of electrochemical firms (notably Alcoa) at that site. The electrical industries largely created the modern emphasis on research and development as central elements in business strategy.

Naturally much of the narrative focuses on the career of Edison. Eccentric and compulsive, he determined at age twenty-two, after five years as a telegrapher, to devote himself to invention. In 1876, he established his laboratory in the “obscure hamlet” of Menlo Park, New Jersey, to which he attracted a team of talented associates. Successful inventions relating to the telegraph, the telephone, and the phonograph yielded revenue and prominence. By 1879, he successfully had addressed the problem of subdividing electric current to serve incandescent light bulbs. This led in 1882 to the vastly more important development of the central generating station at Pearl Street in New York. Edison was the central figure in a bewildering sequence of companies, many of which were brought together in Edison General Electric (GE) Company, incorporated in 1889.

Edison’s work concentrated on direct current. His contemporary and rival, George Westinghouse, Jr., saw the potential for alternating current, which could allow high-voltage transmission facilitated by step-up transformers at the generating end and step-down transformers at the applications end.

Klein focuses heavily on the Edison-Westinghouse rivalry in developing electric lighting systemssystems that embraced generation, transmission, and final application. Though electric lighting spread rapidly, the process encountered vigorous competition from the gas industry, which was also innovating significantly. Inexpensive “water gas” was produced by blowing steam through red-hot coke, and the Welsbach mantle provided an incandescent reading light.

While working for Edison, Frank Sprague began experimenting with electric motors. Since Edison was preoccupied with lighting, Sprague left in 1884 to...

(The entire section is 1734 words.)