Sunday, March 11, 2007

AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War, by Tom McNichol

AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War, by Tom McNichol

When electricity first started becoming common, there were two competing standards in the marketplace: alternating current and direct current. Today we think deregulation is a big deal, but a century ago you could decide what kind of current powered your house! I’ve heard that modern advertising is considered cutthroat, but the AC/DC fight was unreal. Simply lying to the world wasn’t enough; Edison and the DC backers tortured and killed dogs (and once, an elephant!) in an attempt to link death with AC in the public eye. AC eventually won the war—it can be transmitted much farther—but it was a shocking fight.

While intriguing, this book is a bit of a mess. It touches a lot of interesting topics, but doesn’t give quite enough detail on many of them. It seemed it couldn’t decide if it was a biography, corporate history, or the story of electricity becoming a nationwide standard. We get parts of all of these, but not the whole picture. The bio on Edison gave a good look at his life, but nothing about his family or how he dealt with his deafness. We see the beginnings of General Electric and Westinghouse, but not how they became juggernauts. The standards battle between AC and DC gets the most text, but the hints of parallels between the VHS/Betamax and HD-DVD/Blu-Ray standards wars are merely tantalizing. All in all, this book is interesting, but ultimately disappointing.

First Sentence:
The story of electricity begins with a bang, the biggest of them all.

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