Children of Light: How Electricity Changed Britain Forever

Children of Light: How Electricity Changed Britain Forever

by Gavin Weightman

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In the early 1870's a nighttime view over Britain would have revealed towns lit by the warm glow of gas and oil lamps and a much darker countryside, the only light emanating from the fiery sparks of late running steam trains. However, by the end of this same decade,Victorian Britons would experience a new brilliance in their streets, town halls, and other public


In the early 1870's a nighttime view over Britain would have revealed towns lit by the warm glow of gas and oil lamps and a much darker countryside, the only light emanating from the fiery sparks of late running steam trains. However, by the end of this same decade,Victorian Britons would experience a new brilliance in their streets, town halls, and other public places. Electricity had come to town. In Children of Light, Gavin Weightman brings to life not just the most celebrated electrical pioneers, such as Thomas Edison, but also the men such as Rookes Crompton who lit Henley Regatta in 1879; Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, a direct descendant of one of the Venetian Doges, who built Britain’s first major power station on the Thames at Deptford; and Anglo–Irish aristocrat, Charles Parsons inventor of the steam turbine, which revolutionized the generating of electricity. Children of Light takes in the electrification of the tramways and the London Underground, the transformation of the home with "labor saving" devices, the vital modernizing of industry during two world wars, and the battles between environmentalists and the promoters of electric power, which began in earnest when the first pylons went up. As Children of Light shows, the electric revolution has brought us luxury that would have astonished the Victorians, but at a price we are still having to pay.

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Children of Light

How Electricity Changed Britain Forever

By Gavin Weightman

Grove Atlantic Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Gavin Weightman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85789-300-0



It is somewhat remarkable that the first great triumph of the electric light should have been gained in the field of sport. On Tuesday last a football match was played at Sheffield by electric light ... At each corner of the ground set apart for play was a lofty structure – something like a huge inverted coal-scuttle, covered with a tarpaulin. There were also at each end of the field two small engines for generating the light, which was so dazzling as almost to blind the spectators when looking at it direct.

This report of the world's first football match played under floodlights appeared in the Sporting Gazette of 19 October 1878. The illuminated match was not by any means 'the first great triumph of electric light', but it did attract a great deal of interest and press comment at the time and inspired the Gazette reporter to wax lyrical about the life-enhancing possibilities of this new and intensely bright illumination.

To the rich this will seem merely an opportunity of gratifying a fresh freak – a novelty, the zest of which will vanish like that of all other novelties. But to the hard-working professional man and to the 'toil-worn artisan' the thing will be more than a novelty – it will materially enlarge their sphere of recreation. Each will be able to enjoy the sport he delights in – racing, athletics, cricket, football – to the full, long after the sun has set. There will be no period to his recreation as there now is. He can come home from his work, enjoy his dinner comfortably, and then sally out, long after the shades of night have fallen, to the scene of his sport.

The football game was staged by an enterprising local businessman, John Tasker, not to advertise soccer, but to show what could be done with these brand new 'arc lights'. He had installed a little generating station at his works in Sheffield so that he could replace gas lamps with electric arc lights and he considered the experiment a success. An enthusiast for new technology – he created Sheffield's first telephone exchange – Tasker believed that the football match might convince other factory owners to convert to arc lighting and that he could then supply them with the necessary equipment. He was not yet, however, a manufacturer of electrical equipment and had to hire what he needed for the match.

In 1878 Sheffield's Bramall Lane sports ground was, as a local reporter put it, a 'black wilderness' at night. All the events, both cricket and football, were played in daylight and there was no need for gas lighting in the ground. Like all industrial towns then, Sheffield had street gas lighting, but none of this penetrated Bramall Lane, which therefore provided Tasker with the ideal setting for his bold demonstration of the power of the arc light. He would need just four of these to turn the dark of an October night into daylight. The football match itself was staged especially for the occasion, with two brothers appointed as opposing captains who chose their teams from some of the better-known players of the day. It was played on a Monday, with a kick-off scheduled for 7.30 p.m. A very large crowd was expected and the police drafted in an extra seventy-five men in case of trouble.

Behind each goal Tasker had placed a portable steam engine. Each engine was harnessed to two dynamos, which, when spun into action, created the power for the arc lights set on towers thirty feet high at the corner of the pitch. There was considerable difficulty getting the lamps to line up so that the light they threw covered the whole pitch, but after some rehearsals it was thought to be satisfactory. Reports on the game differ a little, some saying it was a triumph, others that on occasion the players became dazzled and confused. One intriguing observation was that women arrived with umbrellas which they opened to keep the bright light off their faces. Women in Paris had done the same when caught in the beam of the arc lights in the Avenue de l'Opéra. There was certainly no need for umbrellas otherwise at Bramall Lane, for it was a fine night and, in fact, moonlit. It was generally agreed that Tasker's lights put the moon in the shade. However, as far as floodlit football and Tasker's bid to go into the electric lighting business were concerned, this was a false dawn. Tasker did not pursue his interest in the arc light, and there was no floodlighting at the ground again until 1953.

In 1878 arc lighting was still quite novel, but there were a handful of manufacturers who could have lit Bramall Lane: Brush, Crompton, Jablochkoff were three of them. Tasker chose the generators and lamps made by the Anglo-German firm of Siemens, by then a well-established manufacturer of telegraph cables, with a sizeable factory in south London. The brothers Werner and William Siemens were from a large family born to farmers in Germany. Both proved to be brilliant engineers, with Werner, the elder brother, taking the initiative. In 1843, William was sent to England to sell a patent for a method of electroplating metals. One of his favourite stories was that he was so ignorant of the language he mistook an undertaker's parlour for the patent office. In time, William settled in England, remaining in touch with Werner and working on new projects as the company's London agent. He took British citizenship in 1859 and in the same year married Anne Gordon, the daughter of Joseph Gordon, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Glasgow. Not long before his death in 1884 he was knighted.

An interest in arc lighting came late in the career of William Siemens, for it was not until the 1870s that the technological problem of turning experimental lights into commercially available models was solved. How that came about can be told briefly, though it involved many years of determination and ingenuity, as the properties of electric current and its effects were discovered largely by trial and error.

To begin with there was the battery made by the Italian Alessandro Volta, which was the first really useful device for artificially creating a continuous electric current. The instructions for making his 'Voltalic Pile', an electrochemical cell on which modern batteries are based, were described in 1800 by the inventor himself in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Humphry Davy experimented with this new gadget and demonstrated that a spark was produced if electricity from a large bank of batteries was passed over a small gap between two pieces of carbon. The miniature lightning flash was the 'arc' of the carbon-arc lamp.

Though Davy had demonstrated the arc light as early as 1808 the difficulties involved in making it practical took half a century to resolve. Carbon rods which burned slowly had to be made relatively cheaply. Mechanisms had to be devised to keep the rods the right distance apart as they burned away. And they burned unevenly, the 'positive' carbon rod disappearing faster than its 'negative' counterpart. The batteries based on Volta's design contained zinc and silver, and were therefore expensive, and yet they produced a feeble current unless many were used together. Nevertheless, a great variety of arc lights powered by batteries were made. Two Englishmen, W. E. Staite and William Petrie, tried to devise a serviceable battery-powered arc light between 1847 and 1851 and had some success. They lit up the portico of the National Gallery in 1848 and Staite toured the country giving demonstrations of his lamps. Though he failed to produce a commercial arc light, Staite's lectures, cut short by his death in 1854, were an inspiration to later inventors.

Electricity in a variety of manifestations was commonplace by the mid-nineteenth century, with the telegraph rapidly extending across the country and the newspapers humming with advertisements for such novelties as electric corsets and all kinds of bogus electro-medicinal cures. None of these devices required much in the way of electric current and batteries were adequate for nearly all of them. But if electric lighting was to have a future a new source of power would be needed which could supply a strong current over long periods of time.

The breakthrough had come in the 1820s when Michael Faraday, assistant to Humphry Davy, was experimenting with the relationship between magnetism and electricity. Faraday as a boy had been apprenticed to a bookbinder, but his interest in science had led him to the lectures given by Davy at the Royal Institution in London's Albemarle Street. Davy was impressed when Faraday sent him notes made at the lectures and took him on as a researcher. Battery power enabled those investigating the nature of electricity to conduct a number of experiments that illustrated its often surprising characteristics. For example, passing an electric current around an iron bar could turn it into a magnet. This suggested that reversing the process might create an electric current. Faraday spent a great deal of time on this proposition without success. He discovered, however, that if a magnet moved in relation to a coil of wire there was an effect. Crude devices were made which were hand-cranked. These were the first electrical generators, and Faraday demonstrated his prototype in 1831.

An infinite variety of generators was experimented with after thisdiscovery. Although Faraday remained for most of his life a purely experimental scientist rather than a would-be inventor, when he was in his late sixties he was involved in one project to which his discovery had given rise. A very large, two-ton generator built by a Professor F. H. Holmes was used to power an arc light which was installed in the South Foreland lighthouse. Faraday oversaw the installation of the generator, driven by a steam engine, which first beamed light from the white cliffs of Dover in 1858.

The French began to install generator-driven arc lamps in their lighthouses in 1863 and were in the vanguard of developing new mechanisms for the lamps themselves. A Parisian inventor, Victor Serrin, devised an elaborate geared mechanism for holding the carbons in place as they burned away, and his design was used in a number of places in England. It seems that almost anyone who put their mind to the problem of how to improve equipment had a chance of success. Zenobe Theophile Gramme, a barely educated carpenter working in Paris, designed a generator that for a while was very widely used and had a real influence on the development of electricity in Britain. The son of a tax clerk, Gramme was born in Belgium in 1826 and began work as a joiner when he was still a boy. He later travelled in France, where, settling in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine when he married, he got work as a model maker for a French company manufacturing electric generators. Drawing on the work of others, Gramme in time produced a very efficient generator that was suited to powering arc lamps.

For a while the French were leaders in electric lighting. When the Prussians besieged Paris between September 1870 and January 1871, arc lights were stationed around the city's fortifications to discourage nighttime assaults on the vulnerable parts of the defences. All but one of these arc lights was powered by batteries. The single most powerful lamp, which could illuminate a large part of north-west Paris, was powered by a generator installed on the hill of Montmartre. When the siege was over, peacetime Paris became known as the City of Light when arc lamps were switched on along some of the grand boulevards, notably Avenue de l'Opéra. Gramme generators were popular when harnessed to the ingenious arc lights invented by the Russian Paul Jablochkoff. In 1875 Jablochkoff had resigned his post as director of telegraphs between Moscow and Kursk and set off for America, with the intention of visiting the International Exhibition being staged in Philadelphia. But he did not get further than Paris, where he met a Frenchman, Louis Bréguet, inventor of electric clocks. Jablochkoff developed what became known as his electric 'candle', working in Bréguet's laboratory. Marketed by the Société Générale d'Électricité, Jablochkoff candles were for a time the state of the art in electric lighting.

By 1878, when the floodlit football match at Bramall Lane was staged, there had been a great many demonstrations of the arc light. Most of them, however, had been in Paris and it was a lament of British engineers that London and the other big cities were being left behind. One enterprising local authority in London, the Chelsea Vestry, despatched an engineer to Paris to report on the electric lighting there with a view to experimenting with it as an alternative to the existing gas lamps. By the time of his visit early in 1878, the Jablochkoff candles which lit up the Avenue de l'Opéra had been modified so that when one set of carbons burned out another set came on, giving a continuous light. With other models, the changing of the carbons in arc lamps could be costly and irksome. G. H. Stayton, Chelsea's engineer, was impressed:

... the light is vastly superior to gas, and is not injurious; there is an absence of the noxious smells both in the production and combustion; the heat in a room, so often unbearable in the case of gas, is scarcely felt; the most delicate colours are preserved; the air is not consumed as in the case of gas; there is no chance whatever of explosion, and, although the light is so powerful in the streets no accidents to horses have occurred.

Despite this glowing account, Stayton thought it was too early to go electric in Chelsea. The lighting of the Avenue de l'Opéra was very expensive, with one Gramme generator to sixteen lamps. In fact, the Jablochkoff candles were switched off at midnight and 400 gas lamps brought on until dawn. Gas, despite its evident disadvantages, was cheap in Britain, as it was manufactured from the country's abundant supply of coal. Arc lighting, therefore, needed to find a niche in a lighting market dominated by gas. One of these was the lighting of industrial works, which were kept in operation well after dark and required a brightness that was difficult to achieve with gas. It was just such a project that brought into the infant electric lighting industry one of its most colourful and enterprising characters, the lavishly named Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton.

Crompton was born in 1845 into a wealthy family which had a large estate in Yorkshire. At the age of six he was taken to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, where the Machinery Hall fascinated him. He began his education in a small private school where a fellow pupil was Charles Dodgson, who under the nom-de-plume of Lewis Carroll became famous as the author of Alice in Wonderland. Yet even that hugely popular Victorian children's fantasy hardly compared with Crompton's real-life adventures as a boy.

When he was ten years old, the 2nd West Yorkshire Light Infantry Militia was despatched to Gibraltar to relieve troops fighting Russia in the Crimea, a war which had broken out in the autumn of 1853. His father was an officer in the Militia and volunteered to lead the troops to the Mediterranean stronghold. As he was likely to be away for some time, he took his wife, daughter and younger son with him.

From Gibraltar young Crompton explored southern Spain with his father, riding for miles through wild country where they were shot at by bandits, surviving the attacks to visit Seville and Granada. Back on the Rock of Gibraltar he found that the naval ship HMS Dragon, which was commanded by Captain Houston Stewart, a cousin of his mother, was in port en route to the Crimea. In his Reminiscences he says he is not sure why his parents put him aboard the Dragon, but he was soon heading towards the battlefront, enrolled as a cadet in the Royal Navy. When he arrived in the Crimea he was given leave to visit an older brother in the trenches at Sevastopol. Here, in the last days of the war, he came under fire, an experience which entitled him to the Crimea Medal and the Sevastopol clasp. He was not yet twelve years old.


Excerpted from Children of Light by Gavin Weightman. Copyright © 2011 Gavin Weightman. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gavin Weightman is a social historian based in London. His books include the best selling London River: A History of the Thames, The Frozen Water Trade, Signor Marconi’s Magic Box, and most recently The Industrial Revolutionaries.

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