Reading Knoxville: The Age Of Edison

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Book by Ernest Freeberg, Reviewed by Michael K. Smith, Ph.D.



“For more than a century Americans have regarded the creation of the incandescent light as the greatest act of invention in the nation’s history, and the light bulb has become our very symbol of a great idea.” Ernest Freeberg in The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, explores how Edison’s invention was not just the work of a single genius but the result of a “complex social process”. At Menlo Park, Edison “invented a new style of invention, a coordinated program of scientific research and product development that amplified the speed and range of his individual genius by channeling it through the talents and insights of dozens of assistants”. Edison ushered in a new age of technological invention and the fruits of which still influence global society.

The electric light transformed nearly all aspects of American society. The incandescent light bulb replaced oil and gas lamps as streetlights become feasible to illuminate nearly all parts of cities. The workplace changed from a sunup to sundown place of production to one that was available twenty-four hours a day. The new electric lights were used in factories, steamships, and railroads to power work and transportation at all hours. Textile workers could see the true colors of their wares, and printers found an explosion in the desire for visual information—magazines, pulp novels, and advertising cards. With better lighting, movie theaters could be attended at night, and amusement parks—such as Coney Island—began catering to more tourists. Nighttime baseball games became a reality. Thus, the electric light invented modern work and leisure.

“Like capitalism itself, the invention process was a form of creative destruction that kept the economy in constant turmoil.” The patent system was transformed to insure the rights of inventors. Photographers saw that electric light when bounced off of reflectors could replace sunlight. The electric light was carried aloft in hot air balloons to observe the clouds at night. Spelunkers took the electric light to explore caves, and deep-sea divers could finally “see” what was under the oceans. Microscopes with light aided the discovery of the germ theory of disease. Surgeons could use the light in the operating room. John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of corn flakes, explored the therapeutic effects of electric light on sleep and nervous disorders.

Edison ushered in a new age of technological invention and the fruits of which still influence global society.

A new electrical industry grew with the creation of electric light companies–safe electrical grids, meters to monitor usage, and a new occupation of “electricians”. “As electricity came increasingly under the control of corporate managers, university-trained specialists, and accredited technicians, it grew ever more opaque to the average American. “Today, an understanding of electricity (ohms, volts, and watts) has been mostly relegated to chapters in physics textbooks. However, electrical concepts have entered the American vernacular. An example is when we think an energetic person is a “live wire” while a dull person is “dim bulb.” Sudden changes come at the “flip of switch”.

By the 50th anniversary of its invention in 1929, electric light had completely permeated American society. President Hoover remarked that “…by all its multitude uses it has lengthened the hours of our active lives, decreased our fears, replaced the dark with good cheer, increased our safety, decreased our toil, and enabled us to read the type in the telephone book. It has become the friend of man and child”. Decades earlier, Edison had sold his interest in the electric light to the new company, General Electric, which soon became a gigantic monopoly. At the broadcast of Light’s Golden Jubilee in 1929, Edison seemed nonplussed when he reflected,  “I did not dream that it would grow to its present proportions. Its development has been a source of amazement to me.” After his brief remarks, he collapsed and was taken to Henry Ford’s house for rest. “I am tired of all the glory…I want to get back to work.”

Ernest Freeberg’s remarkable history shows how nearly every aspect of modern society was influenced by the invention of electric light. Furthermore, this discovery engendered the expectation that technological inventions come at a rapid pace, which is a belief that is shared by the modern age.

Amazon link to Ernest’s book: The Age of Edison

Michael K. Smith, Ph.D., is owner of TESTPREP EXPERTS ( ) which prepares students for standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT. He is also a consultant to Discovery Education Assessment. He can reached at

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