Thomas Edison and Electric Light: The Invention That Created Modern Life

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Duration 01:00:03

University of Tennessee

Ernest Freeberg (Ph.D., Emory University) is a Distinguished Professor of Humanities and head of the History Department at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of four books, including the award-winning Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, The Great War, and the Right to Dissent.  Professor Freeberg is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.



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.


Recommended Reading:

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





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Linnea Masson

Excellent talk

I really enjoyed this lecture. Prof. Freeberg was well prepared, thorough an interesting. I would view his lectures again.

2 years ago
lian chen

Pleasantly Informed

Seen a few documentaries on public TV in regards to AC and DC and learned how Edison, contrary to elementary school teachings, is more of a villain who’s greed over ran his acclaims. This lecture does shine light on the circumstances and the importance of a figure like Edison’s stature that eventually becomes a benefit for humanity’s growth.

2 years ago
barbara ann.fields

Let There Be Light

Edison did prove that persistence were what pushed him onward. He might not have been first or the best but his contributions were essential at the time. Thank you for giving him his due…

1 year ago
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