An Electrifying History of Current Events

Mention Cravath, Swaine & Moore to lawyers, and they will fairly genuflect out of respect. Mention Tesla to car enthusiasts and their eyes will brighten like headlights. Mention Westinghouse and the mind plugs in to home appliances. Mention J.P. Morgan Chase, and you can bank on the recognition.

Invoking Thomas Alva Edison instantly illuminates the invention of the light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera, among more than 1,000 patents in his name.

Mention Graham Moore to almost anybody, and a blank stare will appear. Yet, that thirtysomething wunderkind writer, winner of an Oscar for his screenplay of “The Imitation Game,” has woven the above names into an utterly fascinating tapestry that cross-stitches history, technology, mystery, romance, double-crossing, and the dawn of corporate America into a page-turner of a novel.

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If you like any of those genres, you’ll enjoy “The Last Days of Night” (Random House). Mr. Moore is a major talent on the make. The book is on all kinds of “Best Of” lists, and no wonder. His research is meticulous, his storytelling is tight, direct and intricately plotted, and his way with words is wise and wonderfully witty. He is adapting the book for the movie version, due in 2018 with Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne in the lead role of legendary lawyer Paul Cravath.

Though Graham Moore takes the inevitable liberties with the historical facts—which he readily cops to in an annotated appendix—the basic story and personalities are on target.

In the 1880s, just 18 months after graduating from Columbia Law School, Paul Cravath improbably found himself defending George Westinghouse against a landmark lawsuit from Thomas Edison. The “Wizard of Menlo Park” claimed Westinghouse’s new light bulb infringed on Edison’s epoch-making patent. He claimed damages of $1 billion, which would be $25 billion today, adjusted for inflation.

The billion-dollar light bulb brouhaha, however, was but a sideshow to the real battle royale, known as “The Current War.” Edison championed direct current (DC) while Westinghouse placed his big bet on alternating current (AC). There really was no contest in the long run. That’s because DC worked only for very short distances, or “house-to-house.” That made it economically unfeasible for powering large areas. A generator was required every few blocks. AC, meanwhile, could run for very long distances off a single power source, creating a “network” effect.

For anyone who remembers the grade school profile of Thomas Edison as an avuncular genius with the angelic visage, they are in for a rude awakening. The man was driven by a blood lust to  vanquish competitors like Westinghouse at any cost, and unapologetically went to unsavory lengths to beat them down.

The head of Edison General Electric consorted with one Harold Brown, an engineer violently opposed to AC, to invent the electric chair. Their primary goal was to stick it to Westinghouse by persuading the New York State legislature to adopt the new contraption using AC current. Their strategy was to stigmatize the fledging form of electricity by coupling it in the public consciousness with evil people and the death penalty.

Edison and Brown didn’t stop there in their shock tactics to scare people away from wanting to use AC current. Mr. Brown went on a tour of public demonstrations where he first ran DC current through a dog, to show that it felt pain but survived the jolt. Then he ran AC current through a dog, effectively torturing it to death to make his point.

Apart from Paul Cravath, the story’s other lightning rod is Nikola Tesla, for whom the modern-day electric car company is named. The Serbian national was known for his eccentricity and his surpassingly brilliant mind. Though forever obscured by the giant shadow of Edison, Mr. Tesla today is credited not only with the invention of alternating current, but for other profound inventions that form the basis, as Graham Moore puts it, for “the internet, robotics, and smart phones, and inspired entire generations of scientists and inventors.”

At one point, Nikola Tesla had a contract with George Westinghouse, negotiated by Paul Cravath, that would have earned him $2.50 per AC horsepower on every electrical device sold, in perpetuity. The mind boggles at how wealthy that would have made Mr. Tesla, who, ironically and tragically, died virtually penniless.

As its lead investor, railroad and steel tycoon J. P. Morgan not only took control of Edison General Electric, but fired Thomas Edison from the company he created and shortened its name to General Electric.

Inspired by the efficient and effective operating structure of corporations like Westinghouse, Paul Cravath would go on to replicate it for the legal profession at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. He created what today is known as the “Cravath System,” the foundation of modern law practice: tiers of associates perform work that supports clients and cases handled by the firm’s partners, in hopes of working their way up to that coveted position themselves one day.

At the head of each of the 72 chapters in his book, Graham Moore offers a quote, citing the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Edison, and others.

In a world where unseemly skepticism abounds about the obvious, my favorite quote of the 72 comes from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Bruce Apar is chief content officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner Agency. Its Adventix division helps performing arts venues increase ticket sales. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals, including Westchester Magazine. Follow him as Bruce the Blog on social media. Reach him at or 914-275-6887.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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