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The Last Days of Night is a novel based on the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to establish some of the standards for the emerging electricity infrastructure during the late 1880’s. Based on that description, you might be thinking *yawn*, but stay with me!
The Last Days of Night actually a very interesting and well crafted story. This period in American industry is remarkable. The technological advances – the telephone, the lightbulb, x-rays, etc – were breathtaking in their ingenuity as well as their potential impact on every day life. All of this inventiveness was happening in a short period of time and being driven by a handful of men. Three of these men – Edison, Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla – have prominent roles in this novel. We get a glimpse of their personalities, methods and character.
However, the main character in this story is Westinghouse’s young attorney, Paul Cravath. Paul is charged with the unfortunate task of fighting the 311 patent-related lawsuits that Edison has filed against Westinghouse. There’s a lot at stake. The results of the legal battle will have significant financial consequences and potentially determine the standards that will be used as electrical systems are rolled out across the country. Additionally, Paul feels he has much to prove and isn’t opposed to using some sketchy means to win his cases. What ensues is a lot of intrigue and subterfuge that make this story into a good legal thriller that includes corporate espionage, attempted murder and plenty of double crossing. Who knew patent law and the science of electricity could be so exciting!
The layout of the book is also an effective tool for conveying what’s involved in the art, science and business of “inventing”. Each short chapter begins with a quote from both historical as well as modern day inventors. By including quotes from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the author draws parallels between the Edison/Westinghouse rivalry and the rivalries we see among some of today’s big tech companies.
I like a good quote and here are some of my favorites from this book:
“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Albert Einstein
“If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.” Steve Jobs
“Capitalism has worked very well. Anyone who wants to move to North Korea is welcome.” Bill Gates
The only drawback The Last Days of Night had for me was the blending of fact with fiction. Some of the story is true but some of it is complete fabrication. And the author sometimes changes the sequence and timing of actual events in order to make the story more interesting. He’s very forthright about what he’s done and provides details about his creative license at the end of the book. But the purist in me is a little bothered by the fictionalization of true events. Just a personal hangup that shouldn’t stop you from reading this novel. Just remember it’s a novel. I’d hate for you to miss a Jeopardy question because you thought all of this was real!
Have you read The Last Days of Night? Tell me what you thought.