The electrification of the United States wasn’t a simple matter, it was a fight. It was a fight in courtrooms and pressroms and boardrooms between big men with big ideas, egos, and bank accounts (or at least wealthy backers.) Beyond the eureka of discovery was the tedium of patent law, and the debate over whose current – Edison’s direct current or Westinghouse/Tesla’s alternating current – would illuminate the country. Moore’s historical legal thriller imagines the behind-the-scenes struggle for electrical dominance from the perspective of Paul Cravath, the real (and young in only his mid-twenties), inexperienced but ambitious lawyer that George Westinghouse tasked with defending him against a mountain of lawsuits from Thomas Edison.
Moore opens his novel in 1888 with the gruesome public immolation of a lineman who was not careful while handling wires, just the kind of incident that reinforced public unease with the safety of the new energy source. Paul is on his way to meet Edison, who was burying Westinghouse in lawsuits – over 300 – to get him to stop manufacturing light bulbs, because Edison claimed the patent on all things light bulb. Moore manages to take this dry topic and make it lively and fascinating.
Cravath’s legal maneuverings are novel and clever but Edison is no naive inventor in Moore’s book. His publicity machine and counter measures keep the pace strong and the drama high. Famous personalities of the time – Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, and JP Morgan among others – add to the atmosphere and illuminate (no pun intended) that this is a time of upheaval, innovation and, for those well-placed to take advantage, opportunity. He is assisted in his pursuits by another client, young singer and socialite Agnes Huntington, also based on a real person.
Moore concludes with notes on his research: where he took license with timeline and locations, and where he filled the gaps in what he could glean from the scant records on Cravath, as well as Huntington. Not to be mistaken for a true history of the “Current Wars,” this is an engaging novel about an interesting and obscure man, who took on a huge job. An excellent choice for fans of historical fiction.
Published August 16, 2016
An advance galley of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest opinion.