“At the heart of The Last Days of Night is the competition between direct current and alternating current, and whether different types of incandescent bulbs infringed on the other’s patent. Underlying all, is how a new technology, electricity, whether via direct or alternating current forced the movement away from other fuels—whale oil, coal gas, kerosene, and natural gas for lighting, and uses other than lighting.”
The book under review, written by an Academy Award screen-writer, is historical fiction based on the fierce rivalry between two 19th century energy titans – Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.
Yet Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night also touches on issues relevant to today— free enterprise versus protective regulations, the interrelationship of energy markets, technological change, corporate spying, and the practices used by corporate heavyweights to achieve market dominance, including the manipulation of the press.
The book highlights the inevitable conflicts between research and development (Edison) and the revenue producing business of a manufacturing corporation (Westinghouse). The cast of characters includes J. P. Morgan, Alexander Graham Bell, the eccentric Nikola Tesla, a Metropolitan opera star, and Paul Cravath, who became a major influence in the operations of law firms.
The Last Days of Night is centered on dispute between Edison and Westinghouse as to whether Edison’s patent for the “incandescent electric lamp” was infringed upon by Westinghouse. (It was not.)
Subsidiary to that dispute is the operational limitations of Edison’s direct current, which travels only hundreds of feet, as compared with the higher voltage, more efficient alternating concurrent with central generating stations promoted by Westinghouse and developed by the Serbian genius, Tesla.
Not unlike today, The Last Days of Night focuses a jaundiced eye on the media. One critic reportedly said,
Alternating current … had come to murder your children, … its deliverer was Westinghouse.
A newspaper editorial incorrectly claimed:
If arc current is dangerous, then alternating current can be described by no adjective less forcible than “damnable.” That the public must submit to constant danger from sudden death in order that a corporation may pay a slightly larger dividend is simply evil.
In response to critics, Westinghouse sought to prove the safety of alternating current in various commercial applications, only one of which was the electric chair. Westinghouse eventually prevailed over his better known, iconic rival Edison.
What makes The Last Days of Night relevant to present times is that it is about change. At the heart of the tale is the competition between direct current and alternating current, and whether different types of incandescent bulbs infringed on the other’s patent. Underlying all, is how a new technology, electricity, whether via direct or alternating current forced the movement away from other fuels—whale oil, coal gas, kerosene, and natural gas for lighting, and uses other than lighting.
Today, the energy industries also are dealing with momentous change—the US’s surplus of energy, and the economic and environmental effects in producing and distributing energy. In addition, corporate America is yearning for less governmental regulations. This has caused corporations to take active roles through PACs in the governmental process, and to use the services of lobbyists and public relations experts to make their case to the public and elected officials, including President-elect Trump.
As an energy lawyer, I was pleased that at the center of the rivalry of Edison and Westinghouse is the 19th Century is New York lawyer, Paul Cravath, who is given the role of making memorable quotes, including “The man who controls electricity will control … the sun in the sky.”
William “Bill” Mogel is an internationally recognized and honored energy lawyer, expert witness, author, lecturer and editor. He is a partner in Mogel & Sweet, a D.C. law firm and has specialized in representing clients on natural gas, electric and LNG matters before FERC, DOE and state regulatory commissions.
In recent years, Mr. Mogel has testified on energy policy issues in Federal court and before the Alaska Legislature. He also has been retained in connection with energy projects in China, North Africa, eastern Europe, the Middle East and Alaska. Mogel has written extensively and his law review articles have been cited by courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mogel founded the Energy Law Journal and edits Energy Law and Transactions (7 volumes) and Regulation of the Gas Industry (5 volumes).
Prior to entering private practice, Mogel was a Captain in the U.S, Army and a Trial Attorney at the Department of Justice. In recognition of his exemplary service to the Bar and community, the Energy Bar Association in October 2013 honored Mogel with the prestigious Nordstrom Award.