Public electricity supplies started to evolve in the UK during the 1880s. Today electricity is a utility accessible by a high proportion of the population, but in its early days it was part of the luxury goods industry, a unit might cost between 4d and 1s 3d (2p to 6p) which is around £1 in today’s money. Its attraction was that it was convenient and clean and therefore perceived as being healthier than the gas lamps that it was to displace over the next half century. Arc lamps improved the lighting of streets and public spaces and this gave local authorities an interest in the industry. The industry grew using both public and private capital, and some local authorities proved to be adept in managing the evolution of a new technology. Street lighting was often managed by the gas committee, because that was how the streets were lit, so decisions about borrowing substantial sums against the rates were being made by men who were often involved in decisions about the lighting of urinals
|The caption on this cartoon was Electricity for the Ballroom|
Electricity works, especially those supplying DC had to be close to the consumer because of the limitation of the early distribution systems. This resulted in generating plant being located in unlikely places like London’s Carnaby Street: its contribution to the swinging sixties is well remembered but its power station is long forgotten. The search for early power stations often takes one to the posher parts of town.
Most of the early dynamos and alternators were turned by reciprocating steam engines. The early engines were relatively small and built by companies also known for their traction engines and road rollers such as Robey or Fowler. Until the development of high speed engines such as those of Willans which facilitated direct coupling, the generators were connected to the engine by a belt drive. Belts would sometime break, in 1882, the Mansion House was provided with electricity from a generator installed in the basement, where the belt was driven by a gas engine. During a dinner the belt broke giving the diners the impression they were being attacked by gunfire. In 1888, the first turbine driven alternator was installed at the Forth Bank power station, close to the centre of Newcastle.
Large generators were steam driven because steam engines could be built to supply hundreds of horsepower and it was a mature technology. At this time steam engines were almost as common as electric motors are today, they powered mills, railways, ships, sawmills, pumps and anything big which needed turning. Smaller plant in urban areas often used gas engines. By 1880, most urban and some rural areas had a gas supply and whilst this was mainly used for lighting, it could also used as fuel for engines such as those made by Crossley. The attraction of gas engines was that there was no need for a boiler and most could be hand cranked into life when needed. Judging by the number of adverts for fractional horsepower gas engines in pre-1900 magazines, many modest homes may have generated their own electricity from gas. Such a system is described in a biography of Magnus Volk, the house in which it was installed is comfortable, but not grand. Many micro systems incorporated a bank of lead acid accumulators making it unnecessary to run the gas engine continuously.
During 1880s and 90s AC and DC systems competed for supremacy. The AC system would eventually win because it facilitated transmission over long distances allowing big power stations to be sited away from city centres. However, DC did have the advantage of being able to use lead acid accumulators for storage. Then as now, the demand for electricity peaked in the early morning and early evening and if only a few hundred homes were being supplied overnight demand could be met from the accumulators allowing the steam plant to be shut down or the boilers banked up. Accumulators also provided some back-up in the event of plant problems, for this reason, some consumers perceived DC systems as being more reliable.
In the early days, the demand for electricity was measured in kW rather than MW making it possible to supply rural communities using small plant connected to consumers by wires hung from wooden poles. Some of these used water power, Godalming claims the distinction of having the first public electricity supply, this was from a generator turned by a water wheel in a mill. Reeth in Yorkshire had a similar arrangement.
Initially, electricity was an urban industry relying on clusters of high income households, some smaller communities were still not connected to a central generating station until well into the interwar period. It was during this time that many small electric companies were formed, examples include the Steyning Electric Light Company and the Peacehaven Electric Light and Power company. I’ve seen photo’s of these companies’ plant, both show belt driven generators, in both cases it looks like the motive power is coming from an industrial internal combustion engine, but it is not clear if the fuel was oil or gas. One of the more interesting of these companies is the High Salvington Electric Light Company, this served a small development of houses on the Downs to the north of Worthing. The generator was turned by a wind mill/turbine similar in design to those of West Texas -the electricity was used to charge up accumulators which in turn supplied the consumers. There was an oil engine back-up for days when the wind did not blow. Now that utility scale storage, like Tesla’s installation in Adelaide is becoming available, High Salvington can claim to be pioneer in the field of sustainable energy.