Empowering or Depressing?

I (not so recently) finished the book Empires of Light (by Jill Jonnes). The book is about the struggle for the monopoly on light. It delves into the complex relationship that Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse had with the element known as electricity.

A relationship built with Edison’s hard-nosed, bull-headed work ethic discovering the lightbulb, Tesla’s dreamy imagination, um, dreaming up his AC engine, and George Westinghouse closing the deal with his business skills. These three men are to be credited with the finalization of the enlightening of the world, as far as electricity is considered.

The previous paragraph purposes to politely place a falsehood in prettier packaging. As opposed to the feel of the paragraph above, Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse weren’t friends, not really.

Most people think of Thomas Edison as a man of character: a true american with that lovable can-do spirit. Not so. Once Edison created his famed lightbulb, he proceeded to try to electrify the U.S. (and eventually desiring to light up the world) with his Direct Current power grids. The grids would have need to be located every square mile, in order to work, thus forcing many people in the US to not have anywhere to move, let alone live.

Edison didn’t adapt as his adoring fans would think. No, instead, when Nikola Tesla brought Alternating Current to the scientific community’s table, Edison trashed it horribly. He published an article titled WARNING! (I couldn’t find a page to link to.) which basically condemns AC as a horribly powerful, and terribly dangerous current, that would never be safe to use. Edison stayed grounded in his old ways as Tesla blew past him.

Tesla eventually got hooked up with Westinghouse, who was invested in the business after already being successful in the railroad business. With his business like mind, and Tesla’s creative genius, the pair moved AC along quite nicely.

When it came time for the world fair in 1893, it was the perfect opportunity to display AC and clear it’s smeared name. First Westinghouse would have to get the contract with the fair, which J.P. Morgan was also striving for.

The dogfight that ensued was all but bloody. Two acclaimed businessman going toe to proverbial toe over the most promising asset in the world at that time.

It got me thinking: Why is peace not desired? Why didn’t Edison try to have a civil discussion with Tesla about their respective electrical currents of choice? They could’ve seen each others points, and moved on from there. Instead when they talked, Edison abused Tesla, and mocked him.

Why did Westinghouse have to fight to gain the contract to light the fair? Why couldn’t Morgan and Westinghouse join forces to show off some pretty awesome American technology?

Money is obviously the reason. Edison fought the idea of Alternating Current because it would blow apart his corner on the electrical market, thus lowering his monetary claim on the element of electricity. It did. But look where electricity is today? Wouldn’t you say it was better that we found AC? Edison was only concerned with money, not advancement of the world. Morgan was the same.

In a world where money is necessary to regulate society, money rules. It is the be-all end-all (however that goes), because it is the medium of value. So then when people try to use there scientifically (or otherwise) brilliant minds for good, there’s always someone who wants monetary gain. Profitable application of a concept is something I enjoy as much as the next guy, but I wish sometimes scientists, businessmen, and others who have opportunities to oppose, would join forces instead, and see the power of teamwork succeed, and better society, and the world!

But I don’t want utopia. Don’t even get me started there.

I thought “empowering” would be the word to title this article, because the knowledge of  how to work together. Unfortunately, I do not have a solution for the desires of the flesh (otherwise I’d be rich beyond my wildest dreams! HAHAHA, ahem, ahem), but I think now the title is more apt. Does the knowledge that money rules the world empower you to give it away more freely? Or to combine efforts to better the situation, thinking of money secondarily?

Being a great book about an interesting story Empires of Light gave me some interesting thoughts.

One Reply to “Empowering or Depressing?”

  1. Interesting write-up here, Ian. It was certainly a crazy time in our history. Being able to control electricity (which, I don’t believe can actually be called an element…) did produce many “power” struggles. (Ha! Pun!)

    I find it to be true that, in the end, the desire to advance the “greater good” does win out. Those who hold power (or stand to profit from maintaining their position, or by moving in on another’s position) will always do whatever they can to personally benefit, but in the end, the “best” way usually wins, as altruistic as that may sound.

    I’m glad you read (and liked) the book. Maybe I’ll get to read it some day, too 🙂

    Love, Dad

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