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Originally published Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 4:37 AM

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‘The Age of Edison’: The light bulb creates a new era

Ernest Freeberg’s “The Age of Edison” chronicles the transformation of American life, from the household to the workaday world, by Thomas Edison’s invention of the electric light bulb. Freeberg discusses his book Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Ernest Freeberg

The author of “The Age of Edison” will discuss his book at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 13, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5 at townhallseattle.org or 888-377-4510 and at the door.

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‘The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America’

by Ernest Freeberg

Penguin Press, 368 pages, $27.95

Imagine a world without electric light — a world of candles, lanterns and flickering, smoky gaslights. Suddenly comes the bright, steady glare of a light never before seen.

People welcomed it. If their town had it before a rival town, they were proud of it.

Some of that feeling is captured in Ernest Freeberg’s “Age of Edison.” Freeberg, a Tennessee historian, has written a social history of electric light, particularly between 1880 and 1910, when American cities and towns had electric light for the first time.

The electric light was expensive. In 1881 a light bulb cost a dollar — about $23 in today’s money, which for some workers was a day’s pay. Compared with the tungsten-filament bulb invented in 1907, Thomas Edison’s carbon-filament bulb used four times more power, which also was not cheap.

In the 1880s the prophets of electricity had to beat back the established order, which was gas. Gaslight was cheaper than electricity, but it was dim. It flickered. It was hot. It had a sulfurous stink. Its filth coated walls and pictures, slowly rotted the furniture and yellowed the pages of books. Gas lamps had to be cleaned, and they occasionally caused fires.

Electricity also caused fires, and the gas men reminded people of that. The new free-enterprise electric companies strung ugly and dangerous wires past each other. Linemen were occasionally electrocuted, and the companies were denounced by newspaper editors and fire insurers. In defense, they formed trade associations and set standards.

Freeberg writes little of the industrial battle between direct current and alternating current and between the arc light and the incandescent light. “The Age of Edison” focuses on how people reacted to the electric light and how it changed their lives.

Like the Internet, much of the invention around the electric light was by users. Freeberg tells how it changed the work of photographers, surgeons and medical researchers. It helped birth night baseball and the night amusement park. It revolutionized commercial signs. It cut the rate of industrial accidents, which workers appreciated, and spread the use of the night shift, which many didn’t.

Electric light, says Freeberg, was “a subtle form of social control.” It helped protect women on the street at night. It allowed shoppers to examine department-store merchandise more carefully, forcing an increase in the quality of goods.

Some of its uses annoyed people. When promoters shined colored lights on Niagara Falls, one critic said it made the water look like the discharge of a sugar-beet factory. The state of New York bought out the land and made it into a park. Spurred by the progressives, some city governments — Seattle’s and Tacoma’s included — took over the electric companies.

The electrification of the home was a slower affair. The wall socket was not offered until after the turn of the century, and even by 1910, less than 15 percent of American homes were electrified. But by then more than a million Americans were working to manufacture, connect, sell and power the electric light, and a light bulb cost only 17 cents. The triumph of electricity was a matter of time.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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