The Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes

It was great to read a history book and learn about the importance of electricity as a transformative technology through the ages. It is amazing that electricity was pretty much non-existent before the 1880s but it became widely used in the US by the 1930s, which just shows how quickly a revolutionary technology can spread if it brings immense benefits to users. Jones makes an example that there were many people in the 1920s without flushing toilets, but they had electricity in order to light their homes in the evening and listen to the radio. The example provides another indication of the far reaching implications of technological revolutions. Forgive me for pondering the potential implications of sound money through mass bitcoin adoption…

The book is more entertaining that purely factual as it is centred on the contributions of key figures of the time. Intriguing to hear how geniuses like Edison, Tesla and the lesser-known Westinghouse all had their strengths and weaknesses as they battled it out to bring electricity to the world. Edison invented the light bulb and was a hero of his time but was dead wrong about the viability of alternating current (AC), which led him down a less successful path for many years. Tesla was the brains behind AC and the radio, which both revolutionized the world, but he struggled to build commercially viable products. Westinghouse was a far superior businessman to Edison and Tesla. He had incredible success in the industry but still suffered immense financial challenges which eventually led to him losing control of his electricity company. Their personal experiences add a rich texture to life and keeps me sane as I experience the undulations of my own life.

After visiting the beautiful city myself last year, it gave me great personal pleasure that the history of Chicago was woven into the book. The World Trade Fair of the late 1890s was a pivotal event for the city and it displayed the prospects offered by electricity to the world. I also just enjoyed hearing a little more about numerous American cities in the story, which just makes me a little closer to the country in which I live.

The book triggered my love of history – it provides great context and it is wonderful to be inspired by the success and failures of the great characters of the past.

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