Americans pride themselves on their inventiveness, and no historical figure better embodies this value than Thomas Alva Edison. To modern readers, a world illuminated by electricity is so fundamental that its remarkable qualities are buried under a thick layer of the obvious. We have forgotten the excitement and wonder that Americans felt when they saw electric light for the first time–their giddy sense that they were witnessing the birth of a new age. As this talk examines, people were not simply passive consumers of Edison’s “miraculous” new light; rather, they played an active role in its creation. In myriad ways, men and women grappled with its meaning, and used their own powers of invention to adapt the technology in ways that no single inventor, no matter how far-sighted, could have anticipated. Americans were both eager and ambivalent about the light’s transformative power, just as we are today when we experience the latest technological gadget.
The electric light changed the pace of city life and the nature of work, play, and sleep. By tracing the role that incandescent light played in the pivotal decades when our modern urban and commercial culture was born, we can better understand the sources of our country’s great technological creativity and appreciate that inventions are not simply conjured up by great men like Edison, but evolve as they are shaped by a variety of political, economic and cultural forces.
At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch
Edison: A Life of Invention, by Paul Israel
American Illuminations: Urban Lighting, 1800-1920, by David E. Nye
Electric Light: An Architectural History, by Sandy Isenstadt
Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, by Jane Brox