Tuesday, March 8, 2016

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

This week I'm reviewing a fairly short book which I listened to in audio format titled AC DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War which is ostensibly a history of the conflict between the electrical standards popularly referred to as the War of the Currents in the late nineteenth century. I say ostensibly because the book goes on quite a few tangents both before and after the actual narrative which are tied with electricity or the more nebulous idea of standards wars, but they feel somewhat irrelevant to what's supposed to be the book's core subject matter. The result, considering the relative brevity of the book, is a very general overview of the War of the Currents rather than an in-depth history which left me rather disappointed.

To provide some background for people who don't know anything about the War of the Currents or for that matter electricity, there are basically two systems: direct current, where the electrons move in one direction, and alternating current, where the electrons move in two directions. Direct current is fairly simple and easy to design, but alternating current is far more efficient than direct current and, with the technology available in the late 1800's, the only one able to travel long distances fairly cheaply. Thomas Edison invested heavily in direct current, planning to create a series of small power plants able to service a roughly mile area, but required extremely large copper wires. George Westinghouse invested heavily in alternating current which had a number of cost advantages, most importantly less wire necessary to transmit power and the aforementioned ability to send power over long distances. Edison, having already built a tidy little monopoly based on direct current, was of course not thrilled at this newcomer threatening to undercut him and with the help of Harold Brown launched a propaganda campaign against alternating current, declaring it deadly opposed to the ''entirely harmless'' direct current, culminating in the creation of the electric chair to forever associate alternating current as the deadly current. However, the cost benefits of alternating current over direct current led to alternating current's dominance, at least when it comes to the power that's used in our homes, but both alternating and direct current have their uses.

The problem I have with this book is that it spends considerable time talking about things that actually aren't the War of the Currents which leaves the actual sections about the subject matter fairly weak. I don't mind terribly much about McNichol going into biographies of Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla, some of the principle actors in the War of the Currents, which helps to humanize and flesh out the narrative. Edison, being the idolized hero that he is, gets the lion's share of the attention, and poor Tesla gets honorable mention at best by comparison, but at least they're all there. The problem I have are the large sections devoted to entirely different and sometimes irrelevant subject matter. For example, the book begins by giving a brief history of humanity's experience with electricity prior to Thomas Edison, going all the way back to prehistory and coming up to the eighteenth century where the experiments of Benjamin Franklin are given a place of prominence. Granted, these are all relevant to humanity's understanding of electricity but scarcely any time is given to the electric telegraph, the invention which made practical use of electricity and perhaps more importantly gave Thomas Edison his early experience working with circuits. It's all very interesting, but it feels like the author didn't do enough research so they had to pad the book.

The other worst examples come near the end of the book. McNichol talks about the electrocution of Topsy the elephant, who had actually killed a few handlers and is perhaps more famous now because of her appearance on Bob's Burgers. I want to say here that according to some other research I've done it's apparently a common misconception that Topsy's execution had anything to do with the War of the Currents. However, one of Edison's many business ventures did film Topsy's death which may be one of the reasons his name's associated with it. The reason I bring this up is that McNichols derails the entire book to then talk about Edison's development of one of his other famous inventions, the motion picture camera. McNichols goes greatly in depth about Edison's development, the creation of the Black Maria, and the growth of the film industry before returning to the execution of Topsy. It's just so weird and utterly irrelevant to the main focus of the Current Wars that I wonder why on earth McNichol brought in the development of the motion picture camera in the first place.

The other main thing is the epilog which devolves into a rant about standards wars past and present. Well, more accurately the recent past as the battle between HD DVD and BLU RAY has ended some time ago with BLU RAY triumphant. I do take issue with calling the War of the Currents the first standards war. There certainly was a great deal of conflict over standardizing basic units of measure such as length and weight, or even the struggle to standardize railroad equipment, which pre-date or were coexistent with the War of the Currents. But that's just my own personal opinion. McNichols spends a good amount of time talking about the Betamax and VHS standards war of the late 1970's and early 1980's with the eventual supremacy of VHS and makes dire predictions of the most recent war between HD DVD and BLU RAY although, as I mentioned, it has become irrelevant today in 2016. While certainly interesting on its own, it feels more like an editorial from the author rather than an avenue of historic argument.

Overall, the book was a fairly big disappointment for me. I learned a few new things, but overall the book was largely a very basic refresher of things I already knew. I might have been convinced to suggest it as a basic primer for information on the War of the Currents, but the book loses focus so much and goes into unproductive avenues that I feel like it really isn't worth the effort of reading and I'm sure there's a better book about this topic somewhere else.

- Kalpar

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