The Electrical Century
The Glaswegian physicist William Thomson famously remarked that in order to turn electrical theory into reality, electricity would have to become "a real, purchasable tangible object" so that "we may perhaps buy a microfarad or a megafarad of electricity." He was suggesting that electricty would be real only when it would be possible to buy a quantity of electricity in much the same way as one might buy a pint of milk. This was making a link between the worlds of natural philosophy and commerce of which Michael Faraday --- with his views about the purity of science and the disinterested motives of its practitioners --- would have thoroughly disapproved.

By the middle of the 19th century, nonetheless, electricity was increasingly a commercial proposition. It was on the way to becoming a commodity in just the way Thomson predicted it would need to do if it was ever going to become a part of the real, everyday world. Faraday certainly played a role in turning electricity into a commodity too, but it was by no means a direct one. While he had no objection to the potential utility of his researches, he also regarded utility as being largely beside the point. According to a famous (though possibly apocryphal) story, when Faraday was challenged to explain what use electricity was, his retort was: "What use is a baby?"

The first large-scale commercial use of electricity was telegraphy. Several efforts had been made during the first half of the 19th century to find ways of using electricity to carry signals over large distances. It was not until 1837, however, that two Englishmen, Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke, took out the first patent for an electromagnetic telegraph. The telegraph was first used in conjunction with the country's rapidly expanding railway system, as a way of sending signals about traffic down the line. By 1845, the Electric Telegraph Company owned Wheatstone's and Cooke's patent and offered their services to the paying public.

Victorian commentators waxed lyrical over the new technology's possibilities. According to Dionysius Lardner,

    of all the physical agents discovered by modern scientific research, the most fertile in subservience to the arts of life is incontestably electricity, and of all the applications of this subtle agent, that which is transcendently the most admirable in its effects, the most astonishing in its results, and the most important in its influence upon the social relations of mankind, and upon the spread of civilization and the diffusion of knowledge, is the Electric Telegraph.

The telegraph was widely held to have brought about the literal annihilation of time and space. By the end of the 1840s, telegraph networks were rapidly spreading across Britain, continental Europe and the United States. By the 1850s, the first efforts to lay underwater cables linking Britain with the rest of Europe and Ireland were being made. A new profession was also being born --- the telegraph engineer.

By the middle of the 1850s, a scheme was afoot to attempt the most ambitious telegraphic project yet --- to lay a telegraph cable under the Atlantic linking the Old World with the New. Pushed forward by the American entrepreneur Cyrus Field, the project brought together engineers, financiers, inventors, and natural philosophers of all kinds. Even Faraday was involved, giving his opinion on what design of cable would be best suited for submarine use. The first cable was laid in 1858 and triumphant messages flashed across the Atlantic. Within a month, however, the cable had failed.

Another unsuccessful effort to lay a transatlantic cable made in 1865 --- this time the cable broke. Success came eventually in 1866, with Isambard Kingdom Brunel's massive steamship, the Great Eastern laying the cable. By the end of the century, underwater telegraph cables spanned the globe, playing a vital role in commerce and diplomacy. Protecting the "All-Red Route" of telegraph cables that linked together Britain's far-flung imperial possessions was, by the end of the century, a major preoccupation for the Empire's rulers.

By the 1880s, telegraphy was being eclipsed as the main electrical industry by the burgeoning development of the electric light and power industries. Symbolically, in 1889, the Society of Telegraph Engineers changed its name to become the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Inventors and entrepreneurs like Sebastian di Ferranti in Britain and Thomas Alva Edison in the United States made fortunes through electricity. Across the Atlantic, the so-called "Battle of the Systems" raged between Edison and his main competitor, George Westinghouse, over the issue of alternating versus direct current for electric power distribution. Edison was a fan of direct current transmission, while Westinghouse favoured alternating current. In a particularly gruesome twist, Edison succeeded in persuading the New York state authorities to adopt alternating current for use in the electric chair --- hoping that the public would learn to associate his rival's sytem with death rather than life.

As electrical networks proliferated, a whole panoply of new electrical inventions emerged to tempt the consumers into consuming ever more of the electric fluid. By the end of the century, electric lights illuminated city streets and homes, electric trams carried commuters to their work --- it was even possible to cook and do the laundry with electric current. Utopian writers prophesied a future in which everything would be done by electricity.

--- From Michael Faraday and the Electrical Century
Iwan Rhys Morus
©2004 Icon Books Ltd., Cambridge, UK
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