Pioneers of Lighting and Power

  • Leslie Hannah


Britain had led European economic growth during the industrialisation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.1 To a considerable degree, this unprecedented growth derived from the ingenuity and empiricism of practically-minded entrepreneurs and inventors. Their modifications of existing practice, and their more radical innovations, were taken up by craftsmen and manufacturers in the basic metal, textile and engineering industries. Scientific inquiry and elaborate mathematical calculation had not been absent,2 but these factors were to play a much greater role in the next wave of innovation in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Thus, with the infant organic chemical industry, the electricity supply industry shares the distinction of being the first important modern industry to rest its fundamental development on the inquiries of scientists. The industry did, of course, also have clearly discernible links with established engineering practice, but the readily comprehensible work of the mechanical engineer, dealing with machines whose effects were visually apparent, yielded precedence, in the electrical industry, to an industrial culture which drew equally on the contribution of the research scientist. It involved phenomena at one remove from the easily understood experience of the common man. The spinning jenny and the first iron bridge at Coal brookedale could be seen and apprehended; electric power, by contrast, was at first a mysterious force, and, even when the public became familiar with its properties in use, understanding of its nature and the development of its applications remained the prerogative of the engineer and scientist.


Local Authority Alternate Current Private Enterprise Electricity Supply Public Supply 


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Notes on the Text

  1. 1.
    For fuller surveys of the early history of the public supply industry see I. C. R. ‘Byatt, The British Electrical Industry 1875–1914’, unpublished DPhil thesis, Oxford 1962;Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© The Electricity Council 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • Leslie Hannah
    • 1
  1. 1.Emmanuel CollegeCambridgeUK

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