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Wise a wealth of information on Edison, Westinghouse

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Wise a wealth of information on Edison, Westinghouse

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison

How could you not want to see a movie with Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Thomas Edison?

That's the opportunity movie fans had last year with the release of "The Current War," Hollywood's version of the Thomas Edison-George Westinghouse battle surrounding alternating and direct current. George Wise says he will see it eventually, but after reading plenty about the film, including mostly lukewarm reviews, he's in no hurry.

"From what I've read the film misinterprets the story as a personal rivalry between the two men," said Wise, who worked in the communications department at GE Global Research for 26 years before retiring in 1999. "What I see, rather than two men competing against each other, is two men going in the opposite direction, and not butting heads. Edison had made his contribution to electricity, was getting out of it by 1886, and wanted to get on to another invention. Westinghouse was just getting into it."

Wise was scheduled to give a talk on Edison, Westinghouse and their connection to Schenectady this Saturday at the Schenectady County Historical Society on Washington Avenue. Unfortunately, due to concerns about the coronavirus, the talk has been cancelled.

Edison is the inventor of the electric light bulb whose Edison Electric Works developed into the General Electric Company, and Westinghouse is the inventor of the air brake who grew up in Central Bridge and Schenectady before building his own vast manufacturing company. I spoke to Wise last week before his presentation was postponed, and here's some of what he had to say.

"Their personal rivalry has been overstated, but obviously if you're making a film, it's more fun to emphasize the rivalry and focus on their personal relationship," said Wise, referring to Edison and Westinghouse. "It's not even clear if they ever met, and they never personally attacked each other. In one way they were like great partners. Edison was the inventor, and Westinghouse wasn't even a trained engineer. He was a machinist and not an expert in electricity. He was an expert in team building and getting the right people to help him at the right time."

Wise, a Cleveland native who graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in engineering and went on to get his Ph.D in history from Boston University, is a leading authority  on General Electric. In 1985 he wrote a history of one of GE's top chemists, "Willis R. Whitney, General Electric, and the origins of U.S. Industrial Research," which is being reissued as an eBook by Plunkett Lake Press. More recently, as a volunteer at the Schenectady County Historical Society, he produced an on-line work called "Edison's Decision," taking a detailed look at the formation and history of General Electric and how it impacted Schenectady.

"I really appreciated their interest in the book," said Wise, who was contacted by Plunkett Lake Press publisher Patrick Mehr late last year. "I was happy to sign off on the project. I would have been very happy to give it away for free. I feel very good about it."

Chris Hunter, vice president of collections and exhibitions at miSci and another expert on GE history, said he has used Wise's book as a reference on numerous occasions.

"I have read it several times and would highly recommend it," said Hunter. "In addition to being a biography of Whitney, it serves as a history of the formative period of the GE Research Laboratory. Wise also had access to Whitney family archives that are no longer accessible. And while it gives a full portrait of Whitney, and convincingly argues for Whitney's importance in 20th Century America, it doesn't back down from discussing his limitations."

When Wise digs into history, he digs deep. Plunkett Lake Press is also about to produce an eBook on Robert Bruce's 1973 work, "Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude." A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1988 for "The Launching of American Science, 1846-1876," Bruce gave his graduate assistant plenty of credit for helping him produce his work on Bell.

In the acknowledgements, Bruce wrote: "My graduate assistant, George Wise, with a grant from Boston University and the background of a master's degree in electrical physics, examined Bell's 210 laboratory notebooks page by page, painstakingly abstracted them for me, called my attention to many points of special interest in them, and formulated several persuasive insights into Bell's technical and scientific characteristics."

For those of us who know Wise - and that includes a whole bunch of staff and volunteers at the historical society where he was a regular visitor - Bruce's comments come as no surprise. Hopefully his presentation can be rescheduled for later in the year.