The Last days of Night by Graham Moore

Graham MooreI just watched an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Leonard, Howard, and Sheldon take a closer look at themselves to see who amongst them is Edison and who resembles Tesla. With that discussion in mind, I wondered through my local book store and saw Moore’s book.

Westinghouse, Edison, Tesla.

I flipped to the back of the book. I always do that. Not to read the ending but to see if the author included some notes or reflections on their work.

Moore immediately touches on the obvious: the timeline is off. He compressed the story that stretched from 1888 to 1896 into two years. This is a work of historical fiction so it doesn’t bother me. On his website the author has the historical timeline placed next to the book’s timeline.

The set-up seems simple: who is going to put America on the electrical grid? Edison or Westinghouse? They are already battling each other in court over the epic question: who invented the light bulb? It is an epic question. Just read it like a lawyer would:

  • Who: was it Edison alone or together with an engineer in his lab? Was Edison’s version based on his own ideas or, given that others were working on this too, was it inspired by another inventor’s work?
  • Invented: was Edison’s version completely new, made from scratch or, did it build on an old version or, was it an improvement of a non-functioning version?
  • The: how many versions of light bulbs exist? Was there just one unique light bulb or were there others?
  • Light Bulb: what did the word “light bulb” refer to exactly: the glass container or the filaments and coils inside the glass container? Need the container be glass to be a light bulb?

We are in New York, 1888. Electricity isn’t a common good but it is the aim to get every house and building on the electrical grid. The question is: who will build the grid and will it run on direct current or alternating current.

We learn more about the patent trials between Edison and Westinghouse. Edison filed his patent earlier. He literally beat Westinghouse in the administrative game but was he really the first to invest the light bulb? Westinghouse’s definition of inventing differs and throughout the book we learn how Tesla, Westinghouse, and Edison differ not just in character but also in their true nature as inventors.

The battle against Edison bleeds Westinghouse dry and then the latter makes a move that at first is inexplicable: he hires Paul Cravath, a lawyer fresh out of law school to battle Edison in a billion dollar law suit. The book explores how Paul Cravath at first thinks he needs to handle this legal battle. But when he keeps losing trial after trial the quarter slowly drops and kicks his creative mind into action. Cravath starts working with associates and together they explore every detail about previous lawsuits. He finds there’s more at stake than the answer to the question: who invented the light bulb?

Both Edison and Westinghouse turn out to be far more dangerous than Cravath had anticipated at first. We meet these famous men, their engineers, visit their labs, and learn about electricity and what else we can do with light. We see a soft, tender, almost childlike side of Tesla. Moore did a fantastic job portraying Tesla who spoke with a heavy accent. By cleverly describing Tesla’s movements, how he retreats into his own mind, his reactions and interactions with different people, we see how unique and fragile Tesla was.

All three men were unique inventors: Tesla was the visionary, Edison was the salesman, and Westinghouse was the engineer. All were powerful in their own ways, all were vulnerable because of their ego, and all were slightly obsessive-compulsive. They literally battle each other into bankrupcy instead of realizing that if they team up, together they can become the biggest powerhouse there ever was.

All characters slowly descend into their own version of madness. For one it is greed, for the other it is tunnel vision, for the other it is post-traumatic shock leading to temporary loss of speech and memory.

The book gives us a detailed overview of the time in which those trials took place, the dynamics at work in New York, the other inventions the men made (and pay attention to the very end to see the start of a fascinating Tesla invention using light), and the personal sacrifices they all made. One willing to gamble away the roof over his family’s house, the other sacrificing the love for a unique person who outsmarts him throughout the book, the other not caring for money, fame or, fortune as long as he can invent and there are saltine crackers, and the wildcard: one who risks all to protect the imperfect-one who truly loves her.

The Last days of Night by Graham Moore is a great work of historical fiction combined with suspense, science, and legal drama. I had never read anything from Moore but his book “the Sherlokian” has been ordered. Highly recommended reading!

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