I find few books brilliant and fewer yet deserving of brilliant with exclamation marks. Last Days of Night is brilliantly written, brilliantly plotted, has brilliant characterizations, brilliantly uses historical figures and events and is brilliantly named. Lastly brilliant is so appropriate for a book focused on electric light.
Set at the end of the 1880’s Last Days of Night manages to make a patent law conflict into a riveting thriller. While ordinarily patent law is a complex, at times esoteric, area of law it comes vividly alive in Last Days of Night.
Paul Cravath, 26 years old and barely two years out of Columbia Law School, is contacted by George Westinghouse to defend his company from patent infringement allegations made by Thomas Alva Edison.
Edison alleges Westinghouse has breached Edison’s patent on the electric light bulb. While the light bulb is a mundane object of little notice in the 21st Century it was at the forefront of scientific exploration late in the 19th Century.
Determined to drive Westinghouse out of business for challenging him, Edison sues Westinghouse for $1,000,000,000! The one billion dollar claim would be startling today. It was a staggering amount for late Victorian times.
Why Westinghouse would retain such young counsel is a reflection of the tightly connected business world of New York City in that era. Every major law firm in New York had either worked for Edison or his largest shareholder, J. Pierpoint Morgan. Cravath was too new to the legal business to have a conflict of interest.
Following a legal strategy still used by Big Business almost 130 years later Edison seeks to overwhelm Westinghouse and Cravath by volume of litigation. Taking to the courts against Westinghouse’s main corporation and subsidiaries all over America Edison launches 312 separate court actions. It is legal war over electric light.
It is a daunting struggle for the young Cravath. Edison clearly reached the Patent Office with the first electric bulb patent. Westinghouse, a much better industrialist, significantly improved the electric bulb and has a much better product. However, how can he distinguish his light bulb from the patented Edison bulb.
Looking to penetrate Edison’s actions in inventing the light bulb Cravath searches out, Reginald Fessenden, recently fired by Edison. A generous offer lures him the Purdue University campus to Westinghouse.
Fessenden recommends that Westinghouse recruit the most brilliant inventor of that era, Nikolai Tesla. (I contend “brilliant” is apt not over-stating Tesla’s intellect.) The Serbian born scientist is eccentric to the extreme but his restless mind constantly releases new ideas.
Tesla aids Westinghouse’s cause by providing breakthroughs in the use of alternating current (AC). Edison, stubborn beyond scientific reason, uses direct current (DC) in his machines. The conflict, thus begun over the light bulb, now includes AC v. DC. An epic legal contest is extended from the light bulb to which company shall control the production and nature of electricity in America .
Through the legal fray there is skulduggery, treachery, a touch of violence and amazing minds conjuring the future.
In Cravath’s personal and professional life comes Agnes Huntingdon. The most popular singer of the day is a beautiful, very self-possessed young woman. The nature of the relationship between Cravath and Huntingdon surprised this reader.
It is the best book I have read in 2017 and a worthy member of the shortlist for this year’s Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. Best of all it is based on the truth.
Moore, Graham - (2011) - The Sherlockian; Email Exchange with Graham Moore, Author of The Sherlockian on Self-Garroting