- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003


By L.J. Davis

Arcade, $25.95, 360 pages


And then there was the time Thomas Alva Edison electrocuted an elephant. Intentionally.

Edison’s zapping of the elephant followed an associate’s electrocution of a dog, then a calf and then a horse. The quadruped slaughter was intended by Edison to demonstrate the lethality of Alternating Current, which his competitor, the talented George Westinghouse, was using in his lighting systems; Edison was a proponent of less economically efficient Direct Current to which he had committed resources and reputation, and he was frantic to discredit Westinghouse.

The lurid electrocution episode in the late 1880s is but one of the many illuminating waysides in L.J. Davis’s “Fleet Fire” about the coming of electricity. The book relies on secondary sources and, as a signpost of the writerly future, also lists two pages of websites he has used. The literature on the principals in these pages is vast, and this book could have been a cut-and-paste job in the hands of a less competent writer.

Mr. Davis, however, brings to the account the novelist’s grasp of character and context and the journalist’s eye for the pungent and anecdotal — in both of which callings he has credentials. As a result, this is a coherent and informative narrative.The author provides a primer for those of us who are toward the doltish end of scientific literacy:

The ancients were aware only of magnetism, one of the four basic forces of the universe ? along with gravity, weak force and electricity. Eventually, in 1600, William Gilbert, the personal physician to Elizabeth I, published”De Magnete,” coining the terms magnetism and electricity.

A century and a bit later, Londoner Stephen Gray managed to transmit electricity along 765 feet of thread. At mid-century, a Dutch physicist named Pieter van Musschenbroek was able to store electricity in a foil-wrapped jar of water, a device that become known as the Leyden Jar — the first battery. “For years thereafter, French kings amused themselves by using the Leyden jar … to shock long lines of hand-holding clergymen, courtiers, and guardsmen, all of whom gratifyingly leapt into the air at the same time.”

It is a crowded cast of often improbable characters: There were inspired tinkerers, geniuses half-demented in their obsessions; there were entrepreneurs who barely understood the principles with which they were wrestling; there were theoreticians and engineers, not often embodied in the same individual duringthe “golden age of invention.”

The modern era begins with Ben Franklin, that indefatigably curious fellow and one of the sanest in the pantheon of what Mr. Davis calls the “Electric Revolution.”The mythic tale of kite, key and lightning in 1747 is reprised in sophisticated detail. Franklin both “reflected and shaped the intense practicality that was becoming an American national characteristic,” writes Mr. Davis.

Electricity “made nothing,” so Franklin abandoned his experiments; electricity baffled him, writes Mr. Davis, and he didn’t realize its possibilities.

The “Electric Revolution,” Mr. Davis contends, began almost 20 years earlier than the Industrial Revolution, which was launched by Richard Arkwright’s mill and James Watt’s steam engine, but it took until the 1830s before it “bore its first practical fruits.”

It may be said that Franklin begat the Englishman Humphry Davy, who redefined the science of his time, as well as his successor, Michael Farraday. And Franklin also begat Luigi Galvani, and Galvani begat Alessandro Volta and his battery in 1800. Thirty years after Volta, the electromagnetic telegraph came to be. Another 40 years and Edison was at work on his light bulbs and electrical power stations. And these experimenters begat Guglielmo Marconi two decades further with his primitive wireless telegraph, and Reginald Fessenden’s radio. And so ingeniously forth.

As Mr. Davis notes about this by-guess-and-by-gosh boil of science and technology, “[N]obody really invents anything. Instead, people assemble them, and there are usually five or six diligent strivers working on the same device at any given time.”

“Fleet Fire” offers vignettes of the grunts, if you will, of the revolution, the men without whose work the names that shine today would not remain so prominent.

A blacksmith in upstate New York, Thomas Davenport, improved on sometime watchmaker Joseph Henry’s magnet (Henry would become the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution) — dozens of individuals seeking a source of abundant, inexpensive electricity to produce a useful electrical motor. It is an intricate history.

Mr. Davis spends a good deal of time with Samuel Finley Breese Morse, a successful but dissatisfied painter who became interested in electricity when he was 41. He had what the author calls a “eureka moment” and devoted his life, which he would thoroughly fictionalize later, to produce a functional telegraph. Akindly man but difficult, Morse thought slavery was “an excellent idea,” writes Mr. Davis, and during the Civil War was a prominent “Copperhead.”He persevered and in 1844,”What Hath God Wrought” zipped over Morse’s line from Baltimore to Washington. By 1861, with Morse at one point down to 7 cents to his name, the first transcontianental telegraph was strung to San Francisco.

Comes now Cyrus Field, a successful paper manufacturer in Massachusetts, who was convinced that America and Europe could be connected by telegraph. An impulsive and romantic, Fields’ five agonizing attempts to devise and to lay the first trans-Atlantic cable are a tale as fraught as, to contemporaries, the first moon landing.

But Edison is the star of this show. He typified the dominance of “the self-made amateur.” He was, writes Mr. Davis, as “flexible and manipulative with the truth as Morse,” with a stunningly fecund mind. Born in 1847 and with at most four years of schooling, he began as a telegrapher, fiddling with the early devices so critical as American economic and commercial development erupted.

“He knew a great deal about telegraph systems, and in 1870 almost everything in the world that was electrical was a child of the telegraph,” writes Mr. Davis. His great years were the half decade between 1876 and 1882, when he was a folk hero of Elvis dimension. These were the years when inventions ranging from the phonograph to the light bulb to the central power plant began to touch and transform the lives of everyone in the country.

Without demolishing Edison’s iconic glow, Mr. Davis provides a more informative, and flavorful, portrait. Fertile as his mind was in the lab, in business he was a lamb to be shorn, and both the rapacious railroader Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt who owned Western Union and railroads, got their share of fleece. The great J.P. Morgan would rescue him.

Frantic when concentrating on an idea, at his lab in Menlo Park “Edison continued to sleep on tables and floors, he invariably sported a huge chaw of tobacco in his cheek, and his only concession to the weakness of the flesh was a regular midnight lunch served to his crew … There were never any clocks in the invention factory, and Edison never knew and never cared what time it was. Once, belatedly realizing that a new hire hadn’t secured lodgings, he told him to take the rest of the day off and find a room. The new man looked out the window. It was the middle of the night.”

All of this and much more, in the phrase of local news on television (a tip of the hat to the forgotten Philo Farnsworth).

“Fleet Fire” is a book that will keep a reader turning pages late into the evening — reading light turned high.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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