Last Days of Night – Moore’s novel illuminates the lawsuit between Edison and Westinghouse for the legal patent rights to the light bulb.
Reading Graham Moore’s Last Days of Night, I was reminded of my engineering friends. This is a novel they would especially enjoy, although non-scientists like me can relish its intrigue, too. The historic basis of Last Days of Night is the courtroom battle between Thomas Alva Edison and George Westinghouse, the 312 separate lawsuits filed to determine who held patent rights to the electric light bulb. A young attorney, Paul Cravath, manages the legalities for Westinghouse, and he invites another historic figure, Nikola Tesla, to help build the case again Edison. These four men provide the focus for Last Days of Night, and they also articulate, indeed demonstrate, four different attitudes toward truth and discovery.
Tesla, on one end of the spectrum, was a hallucinatory genius, a virtuoso whose brain was constantly spinning in innovative directions. Impractical, at times irrational, Tesla nonetheless fostered engineering dreams in virtually every waking moment. Edison was more of an inventor, someone who conceived of problems to be solved and who late in his career was hiring a cadre of scientists to pursue solutions. Earlier he himself had generated inventions, but by the late nineteenth century his laboratory assistants were key to his success. Westinghouse oversaw a team of scientists, too, but his business was craftsmanship, how to construct the machine or machinery to deliver a product successfully. He was a manufacturer, of railway brakes, of electricity, of community solutions to turn darkness into light.
Into this mix stepped Paul Cravath, a man of arguments and words rather than scientific acumen. Yet he could translate scientific skills into his own milieu. Watching Edison’s laboratories and Westinghouse’s factories, Cravath imagined utilizing those techniques in his practice of law. He conceived of putting together a team of hungry rivals, an assortment of recent law school graduates, and having them work together on this complicated Edison versus Westinghouse case. In so doing (and this is historical fact, not a product of Graham Moore’s imagination), he modeled the design of modern law firms, where the associates do the grunt work, and the partners take the credit and the cash.
As Moore indicates in his Note at the end of Last Days of Night, he follows the available facts throughout his novel. But often substantive details are missing from the historic record, so then Moore had to intuit what happened, what might have happened, and what probably happened. Much of his extrapolation involves Cravath’s love interest, Agnes Huntington, who adds a significant intellectual as well as emotional dimension to the flow of the novel. Moore also notes several time alterations, as he moved certain events from one year to another in order to heighten the intrigue of his story. On the whole, however, he sticks to the truthful of the lawsuit itself, a morass of conflicting scientific claims.
Two puzzles dominate. One revolves around Edison’s claim that he owns the patent for all light bulbs, period, while Westinghouse insists that he has perfected the manufacture of light bulbs innovative ways. Thus, Edison’s patent is meaningless, or so Westinghouse claims. The other puzzle, to me, is even more intriguing, and that is the dispute over the efficacy of direct current versus alternating current. Here is where Tesla’s expertise dominates Last Days of Night and why Cravath eventually prevails. Learning about the various tests and machines, which Moore explains in very understandable terms, adds meat to the bones of this novel, and smartly demonstrates the fits and starts of scientific advances. Most important, Graham Moore demonstrates the value of articulate historical fiction, and how it can offer a provocative and insightful window into the past. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Graham Moore: The Holdout; The Sherlockian.
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