By Jason Rantanen
I recently read Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night, a tale about the patent war between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse from the point of view of Paul Cravath, the young lawyer representing Westinghouse (and yes, that Cravath). The book is historical fiction (which means that it consists of made up/condensed elements set within the broader landscape of historical evidence), but many of the themes within it ring true today. Among them are divergent views of the role of patents in technological development. Edison personifies the corporation-as-inventor, with his organized system for inventing. Westinghouse embodies the practical aspects of invention–the need to take a technology and make it into a commercial reality. And Nikola Tesla is the “flash of genius” inventor who invents for the love of inventing rather than for material rewards.
Here are a couple of memorable bits (and slight spoilers):
Thomas Edison was not, Paul thought, the first man to become rich by inventing something clever. Rather, he was the first man to build a factory for harnessing cleverness. Eli Whitney and Alexander Graham Bell had each made his name by inventing one brilliant thing. Edison had formed a laboratory that had invented many. His genius was not in inventing; rather, it was in inventing a system of invention. Dozens of researchers and engineers and developmental tinkerers labored beneath Edison in a carefully constructed hierarchical organization that he founded and oversaw. (p. 172)
The “you can’t handle the truth” scene of Cravath’s deposition of Edison is a trifle over the top, but easily captures the tension between Edison and Westinghouse, inventor and improver:
“I hired the band; I booked the hall. I advertised the show. And you hate me because my name is on the poster. Well, I say this: The light bulb is mine. If the word ‘invention’ is to maintain even a semblance of rational sense, then it must be said that the light bulb was my idea. It was my invention. And it my patent. Every bulb. Every vacuum. Every one of your piddling filaments. And to the mute ingratitude with which you’ve repaid me, I will say only one last thing.”
Edison leaned back in his chair before he loosed his final words.
In the author’s note at the end, Moore discusses historical sources and intentional fictionalizations for the sake of narrative. And a few pages later, he thanks legal historians Adam Mossoff of George Mason and Christopher Beauchamp, now of Brooklyn Law School. Professor Beauchamp will be giving a talk at the Iowa College of Law later this week about his actual-history book, Invented by Law: Alexander Graham Bell and the Patent that Changed America that I’m very much looking forward to. If you’re looking for a work that aims for historical accuracy about patents and innovation in the late 1800’s, I recommend giving that one a read.
(I did not receive any compensation for writing this, even a copy of the book – which actually came from the library.)