The electric revolution, which eclipsed the Industrial Revolution by the end of the 19th century and continues to this day, changed our world forever. FLEET FIRE tells us how it all began. In an engaging and entertaining narrative, L. J. Davis fields a cast of both prominent and forgotten characters, from dedicated scientists and mischievous rogues to enlightened amateurs who lit the sparks of discovery. Franklin's kite, Davenport's electromagnet, Morse's telegraph, Cyrus Field's transatlantic cable, and Edison's phonograph are but a few of the achievements Davis discusses. Explaining the science in lucid prose, FLEET FIRE conveys the arc of discovery during one of the most creative epochs in the history of mankind.
Ben Franklin abandoned his research in the 1750s when he could find no practical uses for electricity. Yet Davis places him first in the succession of American entrepreneurial inventors who created the electric revolution. Skipping ahead to the mid 19th century, Davis follows the adventures of the blacksmith Thomas Davenport and his electric motor, the painter Samuel Morse and his inspiration for the electromagnetic telegraph, and the businessman Cyrus Field and the transatlantic cable. He devotes a third of the book to Thomas Edison and his rivals, who together made electricity a household technology in the 1880s. According to Davis, the revolution's first surge ended around 1900 as Guglielmo Marconi perfected wireless (i.e., radio) telegraphy and Reginald Aubrey Fessenden made the first voice broadcast. By juxtaposing the famous with the obscure, Davis shows that success depended upon an aptitude for business as well as mechanical genius. The winners in this story care less about understanding scientific principles than about figuring out how to make their inventions pay. A contributor to Harper's and other magazines, Davis (The Billionaire Shell Game) emphasizes the most astonishing anecdotes and eccentric characters, showing little regard for their historical significance. His best narratives, judging from the footnotes, derive from dated biographies; and he frequently interrupts himself with declamations about the lone inventor and the pace of progress. Patchy and distorted as it is, however, this account colorfully portrays the chaotic nature of the electric revolution and the men who made it happen. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW.