Monday 29 July 2013

I recently read a great book for anyone interested in the history of energy in the UK; Children of Light.  How Electricity Changed Britain Forever, by Gavin Weightman. (  With electricity and a potential crisis in electricity supply in the UK in the newspapers nearly everyday it is important to put the issue in context and that means understanding the history of the electricity industry.  Children of Light is an excellent account of that history from its beginnings in the 1870s right through to privatization in the 1980s.  As well as being informative the book is highly enjoyable, providing a great perspective on the mix of technology, companies and individuals who changed the UK by developing the electricity industry.


It was good to find out that one of the first public electricity systems in the world was in Goldalming in Surrey (apparently there is a plaque in the town marking this), even though it wasn’t really the first in the UK it was a good year ahead of the more famous Pearl Street in New York in 1882 which normally gets the credit for being first in the world, (Edison had better PR!).  Godalming’s eIectricity was provided by a water wheel on the river.  It was also good to be reminded that the main selling point of electricity was that it was cheaper for lighting than gas – the cost was £195 per annum to light the streets of the town compared to £200 from the gas company.  All the switches from one energy source to another historically have been because the cost of providing energy services from the new source is cheaper – something we ignore at our peril.


The influence of great engineers and entrepreneurs, some of whose names are still familiar today like Merz and McLellan, Siemens and Edison is well described, as well as some names that will only be familiar to older readers (me included) such as Swan, Crompton, Armstrong, Thomson-Houston and Ferranti.  The anglo-German nature of Siemens was news to me – William Siemens represented his brother’s firm, (Werner Siemens), and lived most of his life in the UK, and ended up being knighted.  The influence of American entrepreneurs on the London Underground was also fascinating.  The Central line was built with “international finance and American technology” from General Electric (trains), Sprague (lift motors), Thomson-Houston (electrical distribution gear) and Babcock & Wilcox (boilers).  The development of the Underground was also driven by American Charles T. Yerkes, who had served jail time in the US for taking funds from the Philadelphia town treasury with the help of the Treasurer.  Yerkes was a great promoter, and generally “colourful” character, and went on to make a fortune in Chicago street railways.  Eventually he was forced out of Chicago and based himself, along with his entourage, including his second wife, a seventeen year old girl and a former lover, in London’s Claridge’s hotel.  He then proceeded to play Monopoly with the existing proposals for new tube lines and the companies running the District and Metropolitan lines.  He brought in American investment and technology and in a short period effected the electrification of the District and Metropolitan lines, and the building of the first sections of the Bakerloo, the Piccadilly and the Northern lines.


A really interesting part of the history is the municipal ownership of electricity suppliers.  In 1926 there were 572 “authorized undertakings” with 438 generating stations – two thirds owned by municipalities – and this level of local ownership continued until nationalization in 1947 when some 600 companies were taken into the British Electricity Authority and fifteen area boards.  Maybe with the dissatisfaction with existing suppliers and the move towards community energy we are going back to having locally owned suppliers.


Other snippets from the book that stood out for me include;

  • battles over planning for pylons, particularly in areas of outstanding natural beauty like the South Downs or the Lake District – shades of wind farm planning battles.
  • complaints about prices going up (despite public ownership).
  • the need for pre-payment meters in poorer areas.
  • the ability to rent electrical appliances – this spread the cost and helped build demand as more people could then afford electricity consuming goods.
  • Ferranti’s invention in 1929 of the electric fire with a parabolic reflector, I remember them as being very common into the 1970s – we certainly had one throughout the 1970s.


Anyway the book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the energy industry and how we got to where we are today.   I recommend it.


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Dr Steven Fawkes

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