Book Review: The Electric War

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Mike Winchell’s book, The Electric War, tells the thrilling story of the battle over which current – alternating or direct – would send America charging into the 20th century. The narrative focuses on how three luminaries of the time — Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse — vied for dominance in the emerging field of electricity, and reveals how their distinct personalities contributed to their successes, failures, and legacies.

The Electric War is written for young adults but serves as a suitable primer on the War of the Currents for readers of all ages. While an exhaustive account of the topic could easily warrant hundreds of pages, Winchell pulls off an impressive feat with a comprehensive review that not only addresses all of the key events but also provides readers with incisive observations of the characters of three great men, and all in just 233 pages.

Writing with narrative flair, Winchell first introduces us to a young Thomas Edison. Young readers will likely delight in reading about exploits which have become part of the inventor’s lore. The good stuff is all here: Edison’s experimenting with chemicals on his friends, his industrious peddling of sundries to neighbors, his short, inauspicious exposure to public schooling, his raging curiosity, and, in a deft bit of foreshadowing, the curse of an obdurate self-assurance that all too often accompanies the stratospheric success of self-made men.

We next meet the enigmatic Tesla, where we realize, as is so often the case with history, just how tenuous our world’s narrative is. It’s hard to deny the hand of destiny when you learn that weather saved colonial soldiers from certain defeat in the American Revolution, or that an accidental discovery led to penicillin, or that Nikola Tesla, the man whose genius would lead to the ubiquitous electricity we enjoy today, might have been lost to history as a member of the clergy, had he not secured a promise from his father to study electricity should he recover from a serious bout with cholera.

Finally, Winchell introduces us to the formidable George Westinghouse, a man whose role in this story is two-fold. Without Westinghouse, Tesla’s alternating current would have stood no chance against Edison’s direct current. And without Westinghouse, the reader would lack a necessary foil to Edison’s underhanded, cutthroat business methods.

Like all good narrative nonfiction, The Electric War includes the relevant facts, but we keep reading for the characters. In Edison we have the villain, ruthless in business, demanding with his employees, boastful and manipulative with the press, and stubbornly refusing to admit error. Tesla is the naive genius, a sympathetic character whose idealism is continually exploited by selfish men while he lives out his life alone and ultimately in poverty. And Westinghouse is the hero, a man of unflinching moral character who doesn’t compromise his ethics when doing so could have been forgiven and who virtuously provides the world with not only a superior method of delivering electricity but also the five-day workweek.

The Electric War is a well-written, face-paced account of the race to light the world. With a structure bookended by the fascinating story of the first-ever execution by electric chair, readers seeking information about this time of ingenuity and entrepreneurship will not be disappointed. Winchell has delivered a compact yet thorough account of three titans of their age, and he’s done so while maintaining a narrative drive that zips readers through each chapter, not unlike a current through copper wire.


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