Freeberg (History/Univ. of Tennessee; Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, 2008) returns with a survey of the transformative changes wrought in American culture by electric light.
The author begins at Edison’s facility in Menlo Park, 1879, as the inventor struggles to find a suitable filament for his bulb. Freeberg then takes us on a swift, eclectic tour of the electric world as it emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He reminds us how darkness had characterized human life for centuries and what a startling adjustment it was to live in ample light. The rhythms of daily life changed forever. The author also follows the fortunes of the gas companies, whose monopoly on light was about to topple. (Unsurprisingly, they were not happy.) He shows us how light affected many other aspects of American life, including shopping, transportation, leisure (night baseball as early as 1880), education and medicine. Freeberg also examines how the spread of light across the country came to symbolize not just American inventiveness, but for many, cultural superiority as well. The author notes that, for a while, light was the property of the well-to-do, then of urban dwellers and, finally, of rural Americans, many of whom did not have electricity until the rural electrification projects of the New Deal. Freeberg also shows the gradual growth of the profession of electrician, the standardization of products (bulb sockets) and the rise of university degrees in electrical engineering. Until training and standards became widespread, there were many fires and electrocutions—Freeberg describes some grim ones.
A genial, sometimes-jolting account of the social and political consequences of crying, “Fiat lux!”