Victorian London - Lighting - Electricity - Electric Light


INSTEAD of there being the slightest chance that wonders will ever cease, we have strong reasons for thinking that wonders have only just begun. The last new marvel is a Company for lighting our streets, our shops, our houses, and even our bed-candlesticks with electric fluid, so that we may sit, and read or write by flashes of lightning, and go to sleep with a column of electric fluid doing duty for a rushlight in our room. The new lights that have sprung up within the last few years have been extinguishing and snuffing each other out in rapid succession. The first breath of science blew out the dips, which fell prostrate und the wan of discovery, and then came the metallic wicks, offering "metal more attractive" than the cotton, of whose existence ingenuity has at last cut the thread. Chemistry then took the candles in hand and superseded with the composite fashion the once popular "mould of form," until the public, having noted the presence of arsenic, stopped its nostrils and its patronage. The electric light now threatens to supersede all, and considering the universal use now made of electricity, we should not be surprised at the formation of a Company to fix a lightning conductor instead of the ordinary conductor to every omnibus.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1848

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ON Tuesday night there was a second public experimental exhibition of the Electric Light upon the raised steps forming the entrance to the National Gallery and the Royal Academy. There was a large attendance of scientific gentlemen and noblemen. Upon the summit of the steps a kind of easel was raised, beneath which were placed the battery and a small lamp. About a foot above the battery was the light produced burning upon two pieces of charcoal, backed by a single tin reflector, and the light enclosed within a glass case. The light produced was of a most powerful character.
    In our last Number we entered briefly into the rationale of the Electric Light and showed that it would be still a costly experimental toy. We have now to direct our attention more particularly to its practical application.
    The Electric Light possesses no novelty. Year after year it has been exhibited at every course of philosophical lectures since the time of Sir Humphrey Davy, and therefore really its practicability forms the whole subject for consideration.

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THE ELECTRIC LIGHT - An exhibition of Chevalier Le Molk's galvanic light took place on Thursday night, from the summit of the Duke of York's Column, upon which the apparatus was placed.  . . . . The apparatus employed was similar to that used on Tuesday night. Whether from the dampness of the atmosphere, the altitude of the light, or that the reflector was not so powerful, it did not appear so intensely dazzling as on that occasion.

Illustrated London News, December 9, 1848

Few recent inventions .... are more remarkable than M. Gramme's electric light. Frequently, during the past Session of Parliament its wonderful beam has been seen in mid-air, cast from the noble clock-tower of the New Palace at Westminster. This beautiful light, which shone conspicuously from its eyrie 260ft. above the streets, illuminating them far and wide, was supplied by the electric current from a small machine requiring only 2˝ horse power to drive it ... It is possible that all our streets in a few years hence may be nightly bathed in the glorious light of electricity, and the thousands of gaslights may then be replaced by two or three magneto-electric points set high above the housetops of London.

Illustrated London News, August 16th, 1873

Coming Down.

The Electric Lamps in Billingsgate. They "throw a glare on the fish," and are unfavourable to the complexions of the fish-salesmen, who, under this uncompromising illuminating power, might be detected in blushing for the manoeuvres of the fish-ring, and the extortionate retail prices charged by the fishmongers.

Punch, February 8, 1879

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Electric Light.—The electric light first practically introduced into London by Mr. Hollingshead at the Gaiety Theatre, has been made, during the last few months, the subject at a great number of experiments both public and private. Of the former the most important has been that on the Thames Embankment where the great width of, and the entire absence of all extraneous light from shop windows or public houses on either hand, enabled the rival systems of gas and electricity to try their strength against each other on equal terms. On the conclusion of the period allotted to the first experiment the Board of Works decided upon continuing it on a somewhat larger scale, and an additional length, of the Embankment parapet has accordingly been supplied with electric burners. The principal experiment elsewhere was on the Holborn Viaduct, also a very excellent situation, with the same advantages as those possessed by the Thames Embankment. It would, perhaps, be well to essay the experiment under other conditions, and try the effect of the electric light along-side of the ordinary shop window; but up to the date of our going to press this had not been done. The chief private experiments have been, externally at the Gaiety Theatre, and at the Regent-street establishment of the London. Stereoscopic Company—the latter with one of the old-fashioned machines in use by the company for photographic purposes for the last twenty years—and internally at Messrs. Shoolbreds and the Albert Hall, where the Good Friday performance of the Messiah was given under its light. At the two former of these places it understood to be established en permanence. Meanwhile the gas companies have been stimulated by the appearance of this formidable rival into showing what can be done by means of gas when expense is not made one of the principal considerations. The first demonstration of the illuminating powers of the old familiar extract of coal was made on the Waterloo bridge-road, and created quite sensation among the panic-stricken shareholders, who began to think that if the vestries could but be induced to open their purses there might be hopes of keeping p some sort of dividend after all. Some months later the experiment was repeated on a still more effective scale at the southern end of Regent-Street, where the new lamps really showed an amount of illuminating power which might fairly satisfy the most exacting. And a few months later still a yet higher brilliancy was achieved at Westminster. The question is now therefore simply one of cost. One would imagine that this would not be a very impossible question to solve. But London has not yet found its Haussmann.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879


OH, cruel Electricity, that gives so strong a light,
In many an unprotected lamp you flashed supremely bright,
You shone upon our pretty gowns, illuminated flowers,
But all too ruthlessly lit up these pallid cheeks of ours.
Twas at the Horticultural, and ferns and flowers were there,
The beautiful gloxinias, and orchids passing rare;
They faced the incandescent lamps as erst they faced the sun,
While many a cheek grew strange of hue and felt itself undone.
And vainly Art aids Nature now in unobtrusive way,
This lamp malign of EDISON'S is worse than brightest day;
A veil may serve to screen from sun, but when in evening dress,
There s nothing twixt these awful lamps and female loveliness.
Then, Men of Science, you must aid and tell us, if you please,
How we shall make our charms withstand such glaring lights as these
For if the Ladies find these lamps still turn them pale and wan,
They'll lead a feminine Crusade 'gainst EDISON and SWAN!

Punch, July 29, 1882

The ends of two wires attached to a powerful battery are called poles. When these poles are brought together and then separated a short distance, the current of electricity jumps across the space, and fills it with intense light. Now this light is so very hot that it will melt the hardest metals, and even the diamond. So something harder than metal is made, called carbon, and placed in holders connected with the wires, and then this carbon forms the poles. The light is found to arise chiefly from the white-hot tips of the carbon rods, and from an arch of flame which spreads from one to the other, and through which little pieces of white-hot carbon pass over from one point to the other. This light can now be used to light our streets or our rooms, or the miner may carry it with safety into the dangerous mines, or the diver down into the sea. It also is used in some of our lighthouses.

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)