The greatest tip I've received in the past year came from an octogenarian IEEE member I sat with at a banquet. "Empires of Light," she whispered in a conspirational tone. "Read it. She hasn't learned how to spell 'Jones' yet so she spells it Jonnes, Jill Jonnes."
Any engineer worth his or her salt needs to plunk down the $27.95 for Jonnes' book and wander back through the mists of time to get an appreciation for the innovation that led to the electrification of the world.
The formal title is Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World (Random House Inc., 2003), but that doesn't do it justice. Jonnes is an author and historian with a PhD from Johns Hopkins University. She has written a number of books on social phenomena, including South Bronx Rising: and Hep Cats, Narcs and Pipe Dreams. Jonnes' background gives her a mainstream voice that should have Empires of Light flying off shelves. But it's not. Go figure.
Here is a book that marvels at the fits and starts (Ben Franklin, for example) that created the critical mass that led to the harnessing of electricity in the 19th century. Here is a book that reflects the boundless energy Edison brought to his creations. In many ways he was the Bill Gates of his time-building on what came before him to create a marvelous product and then trying everything in his playbook to stymie his competitors. Here is a book that illuminates the entrepreneurial spirit of Westinghouse, already wealthy beyond imagination thanks to his invention of air brakes and signal lights for the railroad industry, who saw a better way to deliver electricity.
Here is a book that is nowhere to be seen on the best-seller lists. Instead the reading public is slurping up books on right-wingers, left-wingers and a baseball player who cheated. The #30 book on the New York Times Best Seller List is about a professional wrestler.
So, am I guilty of shameless boosterism? Sure. But if enough readers snap up Jonnes' book, maybe it'll crack the top 30. Why is that important? It's good for the public's collective consciousness, which too often forgets the shoulders on which we all stand. A culture without an appreciation of the past won't appreciate the future, which is being built today-by engineers who've always made it look easy, when it's really not.