The Rise of the Electricity Supply Industry

Brian Bowers assesses the first fifty years of public electricity supply in the United Kingdom and its scientific background.

The electricity supply industry was born about the year 1880. The London journal The Electrician complained in July 1878 that electric light could not be seen in London, although Paris enjoyed its benefits. Before the end of the year, however, electric lighting had been installed in factories, markets, railway stations and other premises in Britain.

In London, experimental electric lighting was introduced on the Victoria Embankment and along the Holborn Viaduct. The companies responsible were not at first offering a public supply, but by 1882 several of the street lighting companies were supplying private houses along their route.

Before there could be an electricity supply industry, there had to be a source of electricity in quantity at a reasonable cost and a useful application that could attract enough customers to maintain the industry.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, primary cells had been available for producing electricity by chemical action. These were widely used to power the electric telegraphs, the only important application of electricity then in use.

The principle of the electric arc light was demonstrated by Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution in 1808, using a battery of 2,000 cells. If two carbon rods connected across a battery are touched together and then drawn a few millimetres apart, an arc is drawn between them. The heat of the arc raises the tips of the carbon rods to white heat, and a brilliant light is produced.

Unfortunately, in the heat the carbons burn away, and, if the light is to be maintained, they must be moved together continually. In the 1840s both manually regulated and automatically regulated arc lamps were used experimentally in theatres and there were public demonstrations in the open air in London. The batteries required, however, were very expensive and the experiments were abandoned for want of a practical source of current.

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