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Exploding Creativity

May 27th, 2010 at 9:03 am

“Empires of Light” Book Review

Continuing copying my book reviews from my LinkedIn Amazon widget to my blog. I referenced this book in Episode 2: Introduction to Creativity.

Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, by Jill Jonnes

Great book! Part biography, history, science, and entrepreneurship book. Here’s an excerpted essay about this book I wrote for a UCSD Course on Entrepreneurship:

Empires of Light is the story of Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla inventing the modern electric power industry, taking place in the last two decades of the 19th century.

Starting in the 1840s, illumination on a large scale was done with a gas distribution system and arc lights. Gaslights gave off ammonia and sulfur as they burned, blackening a room and making people sick. Arc lighting was an electric technology, in which the two electrical outputs of a battery or generator were each attached to a carbon rod and the two rods placed close together with the resulting electric discharge igniting the carbon in a bright blaze.

The book opens with Edison, excited by arc lights, desiring to make an electric light appropriate for smaller areas, like a room in a house. Edison eventually invented the incandescent light bulb, but he also worked on inventions related to electricity generation and distribution that would supply the light bulbs and other electrical equipment.

Edison formed the Edison Electric Light Company in 1878, consciously setting out to replace the gas lighting industry. This was the first company with the intent of generating electricity remotely, distributing it to a geographic region, and installing the electrical hardware in homes and buildings needed to make use of electricity. Edison’s technology was DC based, as Edison thought that was much safer than an AC system.

Tesla at this time invented the revolutionary induction motor whose rotor was spun by rotating magnetic fields. This kind of motor could only be used with AC electricity.

Westinghouse formed the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886. Westinghouse preferred AC, as significantly more power could be distributed over a much greater distance than with DC and more economically, requiring less copper wiring than DC. Westinghouse licensed the rights to many of Tesla’s patents, including his induction motor, in order to get a competitive edge over Edison.

By the early 1890s, Westinghouse’s technology completely won out over Edison’s. Ten years after Edison formed Edison General Electric, J.P. Morgan combined Edison’s company with AC-related electric companies, and renamed the new company General Electric, the dominant electric company of the time.

There is no doubt that we are living in the vision that Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse had. Electricity powers our lights, computers, air conditioning, and all other electronics and appliances in our homes and businesses. Without electricity, industry would halt and our quality of life plummet.

Today, as in Edison’s and Westinghouse’s day, most of the engines, or turbines, used to drive the generators that make electricity are coal and oil fed, though one of the chapters in the book details the building of the Niagara hydropower plant. The resulting pollution from the burning of fossil fuels has become one of the most important concerns world-over.

Empires of Light covers many of the major concepts of entrepreneurship: visionary thinking, breakthrough innovation, international entrepreneurship, and ethics. Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse were all extremely visionary and entrepreneurial, though their monetary successes were varied.

One important lesson of this story is that even though one is first in an industry, that does not mean that that person will be the de facto winner in that industry. And conversely, just because other people are first in an industry does not mean there’s not room for another competitor that has some unique advantage.

The importance of cognitive adaptability was also underscored. Edison would not use other people’s inventions, whereas Westinghouse would not hesitate to use other’s superior technology. Also, Edison refused to see the advantages of AC technology, which was obviously a more powerful and expandable technology than his DC technology. Had Edison chosen AC and expended his efforts into making that technology more safe, history could well have shown Edison the hands-down winner in the race to electrify the world.

Much has changed in business regulations and practices, culture, and technology since the 1880s. But even today, the right visionary leader at the right time and place with the right resources can implement change on a societal scale.

With the push to go Green, the electric power industry continues to evolve and innovate. Light bulb technology continues to evolve so that the newer bulbs use less energy and last longer. Photovoltaic and wind turbine technologies are being further developed and increasingly used both in the central station concept but also in a distributed manner, where businesses and homes generate their own electricity.

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