Friday, 15 February 2013

Shock! Electricity comes Home

You can see by my recent posts that I have been looking a early technology.  I love history, and all things vintage, but to live in a time with no electricity seems almost unimaginable to me.   The electric light and electric motor were both invented in the 1830s, as was, believe it or not, the battery, but it wasn’t until around 1900 that both found their way into  homes and the kitchen.

American Thomas Davenport developed the first real electric motor ('real' meaning powerful enough to do a task) in 1834 although Joseph Henry and Michael Faraday created early motion devices using electromagnetic fields and Hungarian scientist Ányos Jedlik had developed an electromotor in 1828. The early "motors" created spinning disks or levers that rocked back and forth. They didn’t really do anything useful, but were important for leading the way to better motors in the future and other inventions such as generators. Commercial electric motors were in use from the 1870s.

The first Davenport motor      
 Edison’s original carbon-filament bulb
 Thomas Edison produced the first commercially viable incandescent light bulbs in 1879  (although at least 20 others contributed to it’s inventions) , and it was commercially available by 1885.  Electric lights were quickly put into factories and streets,  but actually spread quite slowly into homes, despite its advantages over gas lights.  Houses had to be wired for electricity, if there was a power station nearby, and not even could afford it or even trusted it. Often buildings would just have electricity put in downstairs rooms, worried that this new power would emit ‘vapour's’ while people slept. The bulbs were also expensive, around $60 each in today's money.  Wall outlets were also around since at least 1897, but they didn't become common until the late 1910s. At this point, one or two special outlets are considered enough for the average home.  The price of electricity, wiring and appliances gradually came down, and by the 1930s most people could afford electricity.


In Australia the first electric light was put on public display in Sydney in 1863 to mark the marriage of Edward the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandria, but this was an arc lamp rather than an incandescent globe.  Sydney did not have a power station until 1904, in Pyrmont, and Queensland was the first  colony to have a public electricity power supply. Initially, many local authorities raised funds, and provided supply for their own areas in whatever way they could. In 1882, a demonstration of what electricity could do was conducted with eight arc lights along Queen Street in Brisbane, with power supplied by a 10 hp generator driven by a small engine.  Australia was motivated to used electricity, as it was also a great method of pumping water – something often desperately needed – and 1000 km west of Brisbane the first hydroelectric bore was built at Thargomindah in around 1900.  We also loved electric trams (Melbourne still has them).

Advertisement for Barton White
Advertisement for Barton White & Co, manufacturers of electrical equipment, Brisbane, ca. 1890, source

Melbourne was the first city in Australia to operate a power station, and by 1894 most of the city's streets were lit with electricity.  By 1913 most British and Australian towns had electric street light, but the majority of middle class families still used gas for lighting their homes and to heat their water. Electrical appliances were available, if you had the money, but many didn’t.  Australia's Northern Territory didn’t have power until 1923, and Mackay got it’s first electric light pole that year as well, although electricity wasn’t actually connected until the following year.

Erecting the first light pole in Mackay
A crowd gathers at the erection of the first electric
 light pole in Mackay on May 3, 1923, on the river bank
 side of River Street, opposite the Mackay Customs House. 
View of an old gas light alongside an electric street light in Townsville June 1922
View of an old gas light alongside an electric street light in Townsville,
 June, 1922, 
By 1927, 34 per cent of homes in Australia were electrically wired, with the most popular electrical appliance being the clothes iron.  In England in 1921,  only 12 per cent of homes had electricity, despite the first British house being fitted with it in 1880 (Cragside, in Northumberland – they had there own lake that generated hydroelectricity).

The Kitchen at Cragside, Northumberland source

In 1913, middle-class kitchens begin to resemble the kitchens of today. They contained a sink, stove and icebox, but are also the main workroom of the home and often had the  iron, ironing board and the sewing machine.   Most homes had a range, and in many it was now electric, although wood burning stoves were still common.  The modern kitchen in the 1913 may have an electric refrigerator, but they were more common in America than Australia at this time.

Kitchen c. 1913 – range, ironing board, sewing machine and electric iron with electrical outlet from the ceiling

Here’s a rough timeline of the invention of electrical appliances and who first invented them, but I want to look at each appliance in more detail in future posts – especially their development until 1913:

1859 – Electric stove - George B. Simpson
1882 – Electric iron – HW Seeley
1885 – Electric mixer - Rufus Eastman
1893 – Electric Kettle at Chicago’s world fair
1893 – Electric toaster - Alan MacMasters
1898 – Electric (belt driven) grinder for coffee - Hobart Manufacturing Company of Troy, Ohio
1903 – Electric Christmas tree lights – Edison
1904 - Electric washing machine- (unknown by wrongly credited as A. Fisher.)
1908 - Electric vacuum cleaner – J. Spangler.          
1911 - Electric air conditioning – W. Carrier.
1913  - Electric refrigerator – A. Goss. or Fred W. Wolf – refrigeration from 1872

After 1913 other items were invented, including waffle irons (1918), the Electric blender (from 1919),  electric coffee percolator (1920s), the electric dishwasher (1930s) and  microwave oven (1946).

Electrical wares on display in the Toowoomba Light and Power Companys shop window
Electrical wares on display in the Toowoomba Light and Power Company's shop window, c. 1930 source

I’ve just watched an ad for a robotic vacuum cleaner that even returns to its recharge unit when it’s low on power and has a uv disinfecting light  - appliances have certainly come a  long way! Personally I love my electric blender, coffee machine and washing machine.  Actually my air-conditioner is pretty great too. And my laptop. Which items couldn't you live without? 

Washing without electricity – no thanks! source
.Deb xx

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