The Last Days of Night – a brief review

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.

“You’re welcome.”

(p. 211)

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.)

19 thoughts on “The Last Days of Night – a brief review

  1. 5

    Thank you JR for your care for innovation, history and future I hope.

    I am still sad to witness the USAPTO is self-serving and not open to its own needed innovation to comply with the modern days of innovations we are living at = failing its original mandate of being the beneficial tool for new original economic development resulted from discoveries, innovated products and services plus yet new safe and beneficial commercial capabilities.

    98% failure to commercialize new patents, shows it (USAPTO) as a tool which is not complying to the nature of the industry, where a new idea is developed into a commercial market ready commodity, in compliance with the modern obstacles facing new small entity and not only suitable for serving large existing conglomerates.

    ( I am relating to a proposed better method of protection, which is in harmony with the natural process of delivering a new discovery to market)

  2. 4

    There’s quite a few decent books dealing with Edison’s patents, the legal issues/battles, and the technology, for folks who are interested. I recommend this one for music lovers:

    From Tinfoil to Stereo by Welch and Burt
    link to

    There’s even more books out there dealing with Edison’s battles over the invention of the film projector (patent battles and bragging rights). This one:

    The Missing Reel – The Untold Story of the Lost Inventor of Moving Pictures: Biography of Augustin Le Prince by Christopher Rawlence
    link to

    is pretty interesting, especially in light of Le Prince’s mysterious disappearance on a train prior to his going public with his camera/projector system in 1890.

  3. 3

    link to

    Interesting read. Also a time of great innovation, invention and patents – and many many many patent enforcement actions. Plus a lobbying effort that patents were ‘bad.’ But we have all the electricity we want today – so I guess the bad old patent system – did not ‘impede innovation’ at all.

  4. 2

    I have to admit that I find it harder and harder to read anything you professors write. You don’t police your ethics (e.g., Lemley), so I frankly do not believe a thing you write.

    You may just leave out important facts, misrepresent important facts, not cite properly, etc.

    We need to reset the ethics code of law professors and start to get some removed.

    1. 2.1

      I have to admit that I find it harder and harder to read anything you professors write.

      Please do everyone a favor and blow your brains out.


          You gotta just love how thsee patent maximalists, having nothing else to contribute to anything, waste no time in leaping to the defense of their tr 0lling c0hort, who — without any evidence or reasoning — just attacked the credibility and integrity of one of the blog’s authors.

          Somehow the existence of numerous “alternate fact”-spewing patent maximalist blogs out there just isn’t enough for these miserable bl0g tr 0lls. Nope. They have to hang out here and shower us all with their golden whizzdom and endless whining. Truly serious people.


            Except I have lots of facts of ethics violations. I have repeatedly posted many violations that Lemley commits. The fact that you deny seeing these MM makes you a 1iar.

            I have also said that repeatedly posting graphs of issued patents or filed patent applications without normalizing the numbers is an ethics violation.


              repeatedly posting graphs of issued patents or filed patent applications without normalizing the numbers is an ethics violation


              You can’t make this stuff up, folks.


                This is not as egregious as you want to make it out to be, Malcolm.

                His original comment was a bit too strong (with “any” lack of normalizing); here, however, he clarifies with the “repeatedly,” which IS a fair comment to make.

                Maybe instead of being in S O much of a hurry to denigrate, you actually take the time to read and understand the comment that you want to dis.


            thsee patent maximalists,

            Nice one-buckete treatment

            having nothing else to contribute to anything,

            Says the number one person of doing exactly that… (Yay Malcolm’s number one meme)

            waste no time in leaping to the defense of their tr 0lling c0hort,

            Taking a shot at your style is just not the same thing as defending anyone Malcolm. This has been explained to you many many many times now and it is – and remains – very Trump of you to pretend otherwise

            who — without any evidence or reasoning — just attacked the credibility and integrity of one of the blog’s authors.

            He expressed his feelings – how many times do you do the exact same thing?

            As for “evidence” – do you know how many times you lack that?
            As for “reasoning” – ditto.

            As I posted, take your own advice Malcolm.


                Once again – you seem (in a very Trump manner) to be unable to recognize your own faults.

                You do realize that you ARE the Trump of this blog, eh?


                You should compare and contrast the other comments with comment

                Only the latter is an example of “defend someone else” – the others are directed to you (and directly so).

                An attempt at comprehension of this rather common writing concept would help you a great deal.

  5. 1

    Will the sequel focus on the Act of 1952, and the fiction of the Court and the clothiers that wish to dress the modern day King in fabulous nothingness?

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