Graham Moore’s novel The Last Days of Night, set primarily in New York City of the late 1880s, revolves around a fascinating cast of characters who are all in some form tied to the War of Currents, which will decide who will have the legal rights to sell the spectacular technology humans have recently learned to harness -– electric light. Fame and wealth are at stake for the companies involved, but so is the progression of science and technology for the benefit of humanity. As Moore makes clear, the better-established electrical company Thomas Edison has built up that uses DC may not have the technology most ready for use by consumers when compared to his challenger in the courts, George Westinghouse.
On Team Westinghouse, which boasts the technology to transmit electricity of the AC variety that still powers households today, is the entrepreneur and engineer himself, George Westinghouse. Nikola Tesla, the disgruntled inventor who previously worked with Edison, is also recruited to this side, and a mood of optimism blossoms as this figure, whose name evokes for readers awe-inspiring innovation, is introduced. Indeed, his genius and dedicated efforts in the laboratory offset his eccentric tendencies and prove to be great weapons for Westinghouse in the war. There’s also the protagonist of the book -– Paul Cravath. He’s a young, highly talented lawyer who takes on the colossal task of securing for the side of AC the right to maintain and advance revolutionary technology that aims to illuminate cities across America, a difficult endeavor on its own. As it happens, this war is against Edison, whose resources and reputation among the public are intimidating.
Throughout the book, it seems that even all these men, giants in their respective fields and generations, are not potent enough to stop Edison. To have any chance of winning a future for Westinghouse’s company, Paul Cravath thinks heavily on what angle he can approach the matter of intellectual property and how he can demonstrate that AC is superior from the perspective of safety. His strategy depends on heavy manpower, sifting through thousands of documents for light bulb design records, as well as on luck and chance encounters. Later on, Paul also enlists the help of the charming, well-connected opera singer Agnes Huntington, who remains undaunted in the face of the exhausting obstacle course of wearing down Edison in the patent battles. As she comes to play a major role in the mystery that develops amidst the execution of Paul’s plans stemming from desperation to gain an advantage over Edison, she expands the setting of the novel to exclusive parties of the intellectuals and artists of the era. Moore also focuses on the evolution of Paul’s personal desires as he falls in love with Agnes.
Before the final chapter of the book -– which adeptly serves as reflection on the special flowering of genius and industry in the late 1800s -– there is sabotage and romance as well as expertly researched historical fiction and accurate descriptions of the innovations from the era -– something for everyone. Readers familiar with the story of electricity’s commercial beginnings can anticipate the plot resolution, but they will most likely find something fresh in the author’s imaginative narrative, telling of the struggles, ambitions, and thrills embedded in the process. The writing maintains the suspense; while the different strengths of the characters are quickly apparent, it is difficult to discern which combination of wit, deceit, and charisma will win out in the end. The writing also does much to convey the whimsical and wondrous atmosphere of this time of such radical change, when electrical appliances had the ability to transform workplaces and homes, holding off the incursion of nighttime, but also the ability to kill if mishandled.
The Last Days of Night offers amazing insight into the brilliant characters and all the things that make them tick. What is inviting about the book is that, while it is heavily guided by the author’s secondary research into this exciting time in history, there is also plenty of interpretation of the facts in the form of interesting, imagined interactions between characters through which the author investigates their inner motivations and offers suggestions about how their respective successes and failures came to be. The main characters like Edison and Tesla have invented dialogues and actions that seem so real you get the feeling that you have dropped into one of their offices and have the pleasure of watching them enthralled in their work. By placing them in action in their daily lives, exerting efforts into projects they can feel are on the brink of reaching something revolutionary, Graham Moore also illustrates the different categories of influential people in every time of great innovation. There are those like Tesla who are completely driven by a love for such innovation, who devote all for the advancement of knowledge. Individuals like Edison are crucial to assembling the talents into factories for invention and to kindling the public’s interest in a scientific phenomenon that otherwise might seem like interesting but not immediately practical discoveries.
Reading the novel gives you a good understanding of why America is powered the way it is today, and it can leave you drawing connections between our world and that of Edison and Westinghouse. The book is interspersed with quotes from innovators of our own time, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, making the common threads about business and invention more visible. The message about focusing on the quality of technology and ultimately, of the product, in the midst of legal battles to best serve the consumer is still relevant. Even the smaller connections between past and present, such as Tesla Motors taking its name from the inspirational visionary highlighted in the book, demonstrate that, in parallel times of technological advancement undertaken by massive corporations, the legacy of the former era extends into our own to guide our aspirations.