by Robert Friedel and Paul Israel, with Bernard S. Finn; Rutgers University Press; 263 pages; $35.00.
Thomas Edison’s light changed the world so quickly and dramatically that it is not surprising that its origins are the stuff of myth. But the true story is much more human and only a little less glorious than the legends. Two historians of technology reconstruct the stages of the invention, beginning when Edison first announced that he would shortly produce a light bulb and ending four long years later when a commercial incandescent lighting system finally began operation, in New York in 1882. An initial period of wild overconfidence was followed by months of groping, frustration, hype, intense hard work, breakthroughs, and a growing understanding of the basic science of electricity. Even after the bulb’s traditional birthday, everything from fixtures to generators had to be invented, built, and strung together before the invention had any practical significance. When all that was done, the world would never be the same again.