It's Electric: 'Last Days Of Night' Re-Creates Charged Rivalry Of Edison And Westinghouse In the 1880s, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse battled over control of America's nascent electrical system. Graham Moore tells their story in The Last Days of Night.

It's Electric: Novel Re-Creates Charged Rivalry Between Edison And Westinghouse

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Graham Moore's new novel opens with a jolt. A Western Union man is electrocuted in the sky above Broadway. He was trying to repair a live wire. Blue flame shoots from his mouth. His skin falls from his bones and scares horses. Man has made his own lightning, but at what cost? The rivalry between two household names who may have been geniuses Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to electrify the United States from coast to coast is the struggle at the center of Graham Moore's novel "The Last Days Of Night." And Graham Moore, who won an Oscar for his screenplay of "The Imitation Game" and is the author of the best-selling "The Sherlockian," joins us from our studios at NPR West.

Thanks so much for being with us.

GRAHAM MOORE: It is my pleasure.

SIMON: And what drew you to this story?

MOORE: You know, I think I got very excited about trying to conjure the feeling of this period when America was being lit at night for the first time. When you read the journals, the diaries of people alive in the 1880s, they talk about seeing electric light bulbs for the first time. And they describe it as if they're seeing a new color. They had literally never seen anything remotely like this before. The effect was shocking, sort of literally and figuratively.

SIMON: And what moved you to make a, I believe, 26-year-old lawyer, Paul Cravath, the narrative center?

MOORE: You know, as I started researching this book, there was a long period of going through biographies of Edison, Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla. And then, one day, I kind of stumbled on this single sentence in an Edison biography that made me sort of stand up and say, this is it. And I was reading about how, in 1888, Edison sued his archrival George Westinghouse for violating his patent on the lightbulb. Edison sues Westinghouse for what historians estimate to be - the value of the lawsuit was worth about a billion dollars in 1888, which, you can imagine, was the sort of money worth going to court over.


MOORE: And so...

SIMON: There are countries that have fought wars for purses that are, you know - that are smaller than that, yeah.

MOORE: And these guys basically did. But so that's what made Westinghouse's next move so utterly insane. What Westinghouse did was hire, as his lead litigator on what might be the largest lawsuit in American history - Westinghouse hires this 26-year-old kid named Paul Cravath. Paul is 18 months out of Columbia Law School in New York. He has never really had a client before, much less tried a case. And now he's the lead litigator on this unfathomably large lawsuit. He's in way over his head, and this kind of opened up the whole story for me. What if we tell the story of, kind of, the great scientific rivalry of the 19th century all from the perspective of this earnest, ambitious, hungry, young attorney who's just moved to New York to make good?

SIMON: I was surprised to learn that execution plays a central role in the story.

MOORE: Very much so. It was a brilliant move on Thomas Edison's part. At one point, he felt that he was kind of losing the PR war with George Westinghouse. So Edison, who had up, until this point, been actually a vocal anti-death penalty proponent, hatched this plan. And what he did was he started petitioning the New York State Legislature to begin executing its prisoners with an electric chair.

And you might ask, why did he want electricity, which he was a proponent of, used in executions? Well, he didn't ask the New York State Legislature to use his direct current. He asked them to use his enemy George Westinghouse's alternating current, AC. So he petitions them to use his opponent's technology in an electric chair so that his opponent will get, kind of, all this terrible press and people will associate Westinghouse with the electric chair. And, you know, who will want to buy the same equipment for their home that's used in an electric chair? No one.

SIMON: Well - and then a man - we ought to, I guess, also stipulate he was an axe murderer - named William Kemmler - how do I say - well, there is no nice way of saying it. He demonstrated some of the shortcomings of the technology.

MOORE: (Laughter) I think that's a very polite way of putting it. So, you know, Edison's plan finally is put to the test when they execute - when New York state executes its first prisoner with Westinghouse's AC. And the whole PR fight they've been having this whole time has been about, which is safer, AC or DC? And they're each saying their technology is safer because people were quite afraid of it. So they have the first electrocution, and Westinghouse's AC proves to be too safe. It doesn't kill him on the first try. It doesn't kill him on the second try. And Edison's attempt to smear Westinghouse with the dangers of AC has precisely the opposite effect. Westinghouse's AC proves too safe.

SIMON: Did coming to terms with this story, writing this novel make you, in any way, change your thinking about the nature of genius or creativity?

MOORE: It reaffirmed my belief that I'm certainly not one, which is always...


MOORE: ...Handy to be reminded of. No - I mean, in a sense, it, like - I felt so much like Paul Cravath writing this novel. And I think that's why he's - one of the reasons he became the protagonist, this kind of, like, hopefully reasonably intelligent person in way over his head as he tries to fathom the inner workings of the minds of Edison, Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla. I was trying to figure out what was going on in their heads just as Paul Cravath was.

SIMON: Graham Moore, his novel "The Last Days Of Night."

Thanks so much for being with us.

MOORE: My pleasure. Thank you.

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