Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Ernest Freeberg's "The Age of Edison"

Ernest Freeberg is a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of Tennessee.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, and reported the following:
One goal of The Age of Edison is to make electric light visible. We travel from one place to another physically guided and mentally massaged by carefully engineered artificial light, something inconceivable for all but the last century of human history—and yet the technology is so ubiquitous that we hardly notice. Going back to those first decades when electric light left Edison’s laboratory and spread through the culture, I aim to recover how pervasive, and transformative, the light has become. 19th century Americans found ways to illuminate every corner of their lives, a process I’ve called the “social invention” of the light bulb, and the book follows the development of light’s role in everything from surgery to shopping to spelunking. Light turns out to be a powerful tool and an addictive stimulant, as good at conjuring illusive fantasies as it is in revealing what’s hiding in the dark.

Page 99 concerns one fundamental way that electric light helped to “invent modern America,” the creation of our round-the-clock transportation system. Before the age of strong artificial light, trains could only move slowly after dark and passengers avoided the dangers of night travel; ships had no choice but to sail through the night, but in crowded seas oil lamps and sailors’ whistles did little to prevent terrible accidents, with thousands drowning at sea each year. On this page I explore the way Mississippi riverboat pilots learned to use electric spotlights to pick their way through the river’s hazards. While tradition-bound captains used the light sparingly, the passengers loved to watch the spotlight sweep the riverbank, adding a vivid theatricality to all it touched, turning the mundane Mississippi shoreline into a “real-life lantern show.”
Mark Twain, who loved inventions even as he wrote nostalgically about his early days as a steamboat pilot, declared the electric spotlight a marvelous improvement. “You flash out your electric light,” as he put it, ”transform night into day in the twinkling of an eye, and your perils and anxieties are at an end.” When he concluded an 1882 riverboat trip in New Orleans, Twain found the levee at night, bustling with activity under the glow of electric lights, to be “a wonderful sight, and very beautiful.”
Learn more about The Age of Edison at The Penguin Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue