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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Audiobook Review: Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes

empires of light
Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World
by Jill Jonnes
Unabridged;16 hr. 15 min.
Tantor Audio
Chris Sorensen (Narrator)
January 31, 2017
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Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Received audio CD from publisher for review

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, three brilliant and visionary titans of America's Gilded Age-Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse-battled as each vied to create a vast and powerful electrical empire. In Empires of Light, historian Jill Jonnes portrays this extraordinary trio and their riveting and ruthless world of cutting-edge science, invention, intrigue, money, death, and hard-eyed Wall Street millionaires. At the heart of the story are Thomas Alva Edison, the nation's most famous and folksy inventor, creator of the incandescent light bulb and mastermind of the world's first direct current electrical light networks; the Serbian wizard of invention Nikola Tesla, an eccentric dreamer who revolutionized the generation and delivery of electricity; and the charismatic George Westinghouse, Pittsburgh inventor and corporate entrepreneur, an industrial idealist who in the era of gaslight imagined a world powered by cheap and plentiful electricity and worked heart and soul to create it. Empires of Light is the gripping history of electricity, the "mysterious fluid," and how the fateful collision of Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse left the world utterly transformed.

I’ve been sitting on writing this review for the last couple weeks because my thoughts were all over the place with it, but that hasn’t seemed to have changed with time. I think it’s a sign.

Empires of Light covered every base that you can likely think of within the realm of electricity and how it evolved into an everyday convenience. While the scope is narrowed, in theory, to the contributions and legacies of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse, the fact that these were the big three in their field was casting the net a bit wide. Among other things, attention was paid to: the legal battles that arose from this new technology and the battle for supremacy over it by these three men; the science behind creating, storing, transporting, and using electricity; its application in crime and punishment; and societal issues. And that just barely touches the surface here. There was an extensive amount of information here and much of it was physics and very technical, which went WAY over my head (seeing as I never took physics in school). I think my husband would have a greater appreciation for this aspect of the book than I would as he is very into that area of science. This felt especially true in the section about Tesla and his extensive work on alternating current. He was a man ahead of his time for sure and in some ways still is in my opinion.

While the technical aspects of the science went beyond what I could really appreciate (to be honest, my eyes sort of glazed over during that segment) I found the societal implications of electricity to be fascinating. My area of expertise being crime and sociology there was plenty to pique my interest. The use of electricity as a means of punishment was new at that time and the author took painstaking interest in describing for the reader just how those early attempts at the death penalty went. I will strongly recommend you not be eating during this section and possibly skipping it if you have a weak stomach or don’t want to be exposed to basically the torture of people and animals in the name of science. It grossed me out and I have a pretty high tolerance for reading about that kind of stuff in a historical context. I was able to make ties between this book and Devil in the White City by Erik Larson because Edison makes a large contribution to the electrical demonstration in the Columbian Exposition which was also a focal point of that book too. While I struggled with some of the science, there was a lot that I could get behind here too.



I think I would have been better off reading this book in print over listening to it on audio for a couple reasons. I think with the subject matter being something almost beyond my ability to comprehend it, if reading in print I would have been more apt to put it down, look some things up, and then come back to it. Having it in my ear, I just let it keep running past things I didn’t know. It also felt very heavy and dense being read to me, it just couldn’t keep my attention for long periods of time; I would have to listen to it in 15 or 20 minute intervals which made for a long reading period in order to finish this book. I also had a little struggle with settling in with the narrator. His manner of speech and intonation always made it sound like he was asking a question at the end of every sentence. It took me a LONG TIME to get past this being an issue that was driving me to distraction (also probably a contributing factor in my need to only listen to short bursts at a time). A different choice of narrator might have made it more palatable, but I still stand by the concept that the material here is just a little dense for the casual reader to be comfortable with, however if you are an engineer or has a solid grasp of physics where the technical aspects of electricity are commonplace, you might not have as difficult a listen as I did.

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:

Buy the Book:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia

You may preview a sample of the audiobook below (links to Audible):

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Also by Jill Jonnes:

Eiffel's tower
Eiffel’s Tower

conquering gotham
Conquering Gotham

urban forests
Urban Forests

south bronx rising
South Bronx Rising

Find Jill Jonnes:
Website | Instagram

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