As far as patent disputes go, this was a doozy. Graham Moore’s excellent new historical legal thriller, The Last Days of Night, plops us right into the hotbed of technological innovation that was in situ in late 19th century America. Readers are rewarded with the wonders of invention, dubious plots, a smidgen of romance and a peek into the wiring of the greatest minds of the day set amid Gilded Age New York.
So who really invented the light bulb? Neophyte attorney Paul Cravath finds himself embroiled in the legal wrangling between the inventor Thomas Edison and industrialist George Westinghouse. Cravath is hired to defend Westinghouse against a patent lawsuit filed by Edison. Edison says he holds the right to electrify a country still aglow with gas lamps. There is also the dilemma of alternating current (Westinghouse) versus direct current (Edison), with the winner transforming the world. Cravath is over his head and knows it in this highly readable retelling of the War of the Electric Currents that actually took place between 1888 and 1896.
Moore, author of The Sherlockian and the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game, actually recreates the time period from 1888 to 1890. Along the way, we are introduced to familiar names, like J.P. Morgan, Alexander Bell and Viktor Tesla, as well as the birth and controversy of the modern electric chair. Cravath’s love interest, the singer Agnes Huntington, develops into a surprising multi-hued personality that adds the merest trifle of melodrama.
With a calibrated dose of legal and technical jargon, Moore’s fast-moving narrative is certain to carry broad appeal for readers wanting to get inside the heads of brilliant and visionary giants. For those wanting the real story, try the excellent Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, George Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World by historian Jill Jonnes. A film adaption of The Last Days of Night is also in the works, starring actor Eddie Redmayne as Paul Cravath.