I grew up in Northern New Jersey and I currently live within five miles of Thomas Edison’s laboratory, a national historical park in West Orange, N.J. (Oh the Things Thomas Edison Thought Of.) It’s a fascinating place, all full of vials, test tubes and filaments, machines and contraptions, tools of every kind, as well as all of the finished products, ranging from motion picture cameras to a waffle iron.
As school kids, we all went there on field trips. As a sort of historical homeboy, Edison is as revered as any historical figure. So you can imagine my shock when, upon reading Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night, I found Edison portrayed as an outright scoundrel. Intensely jealous, disrespectful of anyone who could be construed as a rival or a critic, unethical and a second-rate inventor at that. Then I saw Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s movie The Current War. Added to the above we now see Edison as a torturer of innocent animals and likely a crappy husband and father.
Keep in mind that both the book and the movie are works of historical fiction. Both are supposed to be based on true events, but Moore isn’t writing history and Gomez-Rejon isn’t filming a documentary. Both have the same themes. There is a lawsuit ongoing between Edison and George Westinghouse in which Edison is suing Westinghouse for violating his patent for the light bulb. The Last Days of Night is narrated by the attorney representing Westinghouse in this legal case. Edison, by the way, didn’t invent the light bulb, but he created and received a patent on a certain type of bulb whose cost and longevity made it viable.
Then there is the current war that gave the movie its name. As Edison and Westinghouse competed for contracts to electrify the country, Edison used direct current. Westinghouse used alternating current which was cheaper and could cover longer distances. Edison sought to portray AC as dangerous. Thus in the movie we see Edison electrocuting a horse to prove his point. And in The Last Days of Night the suggestion is floated that Edison paid someone to set fire to Nicola Tesla’s lab, a fire that almost killed him. Tesla was the founder of alternating current. He was a former Edison employee who later hooked up with Westinghouse.
Moore portrays Tesla as an erratic, nearly incoherent, unstable genius. I suspect the film understates his importance and Nicholas Hoult is unconvincing as a guy who probably truly was a genius. Tesla is the only one of the three who didn’t come away with a pile of money.
The other theme that is central to both of the stories involves capital punishment. New York State is unveiling an electric chair as a more ‘humane’ method of execution. They are using alternating current (with Edison’s encouragement?). Edison is prepared to use this as proof that AC is lethal. Westinghouse sues to prevent it.
Moore’s book is a real page turner. It is very similar in style and tone to Eric Larsen’s popular histories. The movie has been panned by critics and ratings services. It’s not that bad. I viewed it with low expectations but found it surprising interesting.
There are however a few things about the movie that I’m pretty skeptical about. I think its doubtful that Westinghouse was beyond reproach as he is portrayed. And for all the photos I’ve seen of Edison, I just can’t come to grips with him looking like Benedict Cumberbatch. There’s also a courtroom scene which involves the Westinghouse suit to prevent the adoption of the electric chair based on the constitutional prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” For some reason the ax murderer who is set to be the first victim is in the court. After the session is over, the criminal comes out the same door as Edison. When someone asks Edison for his autograph, the ax murderer bends forward and Edison leans on his back to sign. Then they take him away. Please!
It is also contrived and melodramatic to present the flip of the switch on the electric chair and the flip of the switch turning on the lights at the Chicago World’s Fair as if they were happening simultaneously.
I understand that it’s not unusual for men who have made history, who have made major advances that benefited society, to not always be the most pleasant chaps to be around. More often than not they are arrogant and obsessive. And especially at the end of the 19th century, ruthlessness was how you did business. But I would at least like to be left with the thought that Edison was indeed a brilliant inventor and that all of the amazing things you can see in the West Orange lab are a result of that.