Issue number 15                                                                                                                               
July 2017
France hit the headlines this month by joining growing ranks of nations preparing to bid adieu to the internal combustion engine. Every turn in technology raises fresh challenges to be overcome, but for now the electric motor seems to be — quite literally — the way forward.

To mark this seismic change, this issue of the engineering-timelines newsletter is dedicated to electricity: the power that's locked in every atom.
The history of how humanity harnessed the electron
How to make electricity, describing the work and importance of seminal electrical engineer, Michael Faraday, is an in-depth feature on engineering timelines - take a look through the whole thing (it's all good stuff!), or skip straight to the handy timeline.

And as luck would have it, the Wellcome Collection, together with Teylers Museum in Haarlem in the Netherlands, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, UK, have put together a comprehensive and engaging exhibition on the topic. Electricity: The Spark of Life covers three core themes - generation, supply and consumption - and has been curated with a lively eye for human detail that makes both the science and the history all the more memorable.

The catch is: if you're in London, you've missed it (sorry). However, we've featured it here because it's just about to open at the Teyler's Museum (25th July 2017-8th January 2018) and will be visiting Manchester for a similarly extensive period thereafter.  Both museums are well worth a visit in any case, and those timescales give you plenty of time to plan your trip...
The original electric Tesla: Nikola in 1901, as featured in Wellcome's "Electricity: The Spark of Life" exhibition. Nikola Tesla was one of several major contributors to the development of the alternating current (AC) supply system, and was also convinced that both lighting and electronic communication could one day be wireless. What a crazy idea.

photo : copyright The Wellcome Collection

The story of many electrical developments, from distribution networks to the domestic lightbulb, is unusually thrilling, crowded as it is with competing patents and simultaneous inventions. Look out in the next few weeks for engineering timelines' forthcoming online biography of John Hopkinson (portrait below), the brilliant British physicist and electrical engineer whose is one of several contributors credited with inventing the three-phase system of power distribution still in use today. His role, however, is downplayed or lost in many accounts of the so-called "War of the Currents".

Hopkinson is completely missing, for example, from this richly-illustrated account from the Edison Tech Center in New York State - although we may have to forgive them this omission, because they also provide so many fun explanatory videos about a whole range of electrical phenomena.
Manchester-born John Hopkinson, the brilliant physicist and electrical engineer credited with the first patent - in 1882 - for the three-phase system of electricity distribution. He died prematurely and tragically alongside three of his adult children in a mountaineering accident, a month after his 49th birthday.
portrait by Thomas Benjamin Kennington : copyright Cambridge Department of Engineering

There is little dispute, however, about the role of the fabulously-named Sebastian Pietro Innocenzo Adhemar Ziani de Ferranti in designing London's first electricity supply network, including the world's first high voltage power station (pictured below) at Deptford. 

Ziani de Ferranti is also credited by the Women's Engineering Society as being instrumental in giving early support to the Electrical Association of Women (EAW), although the exact nature of his support is not detailed. Engineering timelines would be delighted to receive any further intelligence from our readers about that particular link, which appears to have come about through the assiduous efforts of pioneering engineer and campaigner Caroline Haslett, whose life and work on electricity in the home featured prominently in our May newsletter.

Speaking of which... for anyone who's in Dublin this autumn or in Manchester next spring, Electric Generations is an exhibition telling the story of electricity in the Irish home, including previously unseen material from the ESB (Electricity Supply Board) and IET (Institution of Engineering & Technology) archives. If you're already thinking of visiting the Wellcome exhibition in Manchester, why not make an electric weekend of it?
You can't hang on to all of history... Deptford Power Station, the pioneering work of engineer Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti on behalf of The London Electricity Supply Corporation, was demolished in 1991-2 after more than ninety years of active use. And incidentally, although you can not longer visit the original you can buy prints of this and other wonderful images of industrial heritage from the extensive collection of the Museum of London's Picture Library.
photo : © PLA collection/Museum of London. Used with permission.

From the Irish home to the English Country House, an interactive project to shed light on the role of these grand residences (and their owners) in the history of domestic electrification. One of the project's partners is Cragside, now owned by the National Trust, and still containing several of the electrical innovations for which it became famous. Under its Victorian owners, Sir William and Lady Margaret Armstrong, in 1880 it became the first private home apart from the inventor's own to be illuminated by the electric lightbulb.

It was also the first to be supplied by hydro-electric power, which was generated from the lake in its grounds. This was two years before the first public hydro-electric power plant in the world became operational in America - which we mention purely as an excuse to include a link to the Three Gorges Dam in China, currently the world's largest power installation and a truly awesome sight.

Joseph Swan (pictured below), inventor of the lightbulb, successfully sued Thomas Edison in America for breach of patent in the production of his own, almost simultaneous version.

The history of the lightbulb, illustrated by a breathtaking array of more than 400 historic bulbs, may be further explored in the permanent collection of The Huntington in San Marino, California. If you're not heading for the West Coast of the US any time soon, the Beautiful Science: Ideas that changed the world pages of The Huntingdon's website will have to substitute (and are well worth a visit).
Joseph Swan, inventor of the lightbulb and successful rival - and later business partner - of Thomas Edison, pictured in 1910. The image comes from the inventions and discoveries website, Made Up In Britain, but it seems unlikely that the information on that site is, in fact, entirely made up...

photo : copyright

Swan's new bulbs weren't confined to country houses for long, of course: his highest profile early demonstration of their power was in 1881 at London's Savoy Theatre, the first public building to be lit by electricity.

High on a hill to the north, a different innovation in theatre lighting was soon underway.  Alexandra Palace opened in 1873 and again (after fire) in 1875, complete with a 2,500 seat theatre. Now part of a complex of listed buildings (scroll all the way down the listing information for the images), the theatre has been undergoing massive refurbishment to reopen in 2018.

But in the dormant auditorium, to quote Historic England's website, "you can just make out the old electrical system for dimming the stage lights by raising and lowering copper plates into stoneware cylinders containing electrolyte, changing the resistance in the circuit."  Engineering timelines hopes fervently that this rare feature is preserved.

Indeed, the history of stage lighting is a fascinating subject in itself, for which the well-informed works of the late lighting designer, Francis Reid, are an excellent place to start. Or for the quickest of quick cheats, you could take a look at the handy online list produced by Northern State University, Aberdeen, South Dakota, USA. It's unclear who prepared the history, but the university has got a "safe, small campus with a low crime rate", apparently - and who could possibly object to that?
For those of you who thought that dimmer switches were born in the 1970s with shag pile carpets and Newton's Cradle desk toys... here's proof of your error. The dormant Alexandra Palace theatre in North London contains a far older version in the form of copper plates dipping into electrolyte-filled stoneware cylinders, thus changing the resistance in the lighting circuit to alter the strength of illumination.

photo : copyright Alexandra Palace

As many commentators are now pointing out, massive and growing changes in energy production and usage - such as forthcoming the electric car revolution on the one hand and increased input from small-scale renewables on the other - point to testing times for the National Grid.

BBC4's four-part documentary, The Secret Life of the National Grid, made seven years ago, provides an interesting grounding in the complex workings of this national asset - although unfortunately, it appears not to be available via official channels. But YouTube, as ever, is quick to fill the gap...

Meanwhile, let's pause to consider the electricity pylon, subject of controversy and admiration since its first appearance (as a "grid tower") in 1928. The National Grid company gives a quick history, written in the context of an international pylon design competition held in in 2011 by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the National Grid itself. We know that Danish architects, Bystrup, produced the winning design (depicted along with runners up, below), but the  identity of the designer of that first 1928 grid tower appears to be lost in the mists of time.

Nonetheless, they and their professional antecedents have achieved a kind of immortality, despite their anonymity. Passionate pylon fans have created excellent resources such as the enthusiastic and thorough pylon appreciation society and the utterly fabulous pylon of the month blog - both of which come highly commended by this reporter, simply for contributing to the joy quotient of life in the post-industrial era.
The new T-pylon designed by Danish architect Erik Bystrup will answer several of the National Grid's requirements for adaptation to new criteria. The first in the field were built at a test site in 2015, but engineering-timelines has been unable to ascertain what's happened since, and the National Grid's T-pylon blog appears dormant since 2013. Drop us a line if you've seen one in its natural habitat.
photo : copyright DailyMailonline

So... how are National Grids across the developed world going to cope with "wobbly signal" input from thousands of tiny renewable energy sources? And how are they going to take the strain of thousands, then millions, of electric cars plugging in for a recharge?

It pains us to reveal to our readers that engineering-timelines does not currently have the answers... but this BBC World Service article from its 50 Things That Make the Modern Economy series gives a brief-but-comprehensive and comprehensible history of the storage cell and questions about its current and future role.

Meanwhile, the modern messiah of the battery, Elon Musk, has recently unveiled the new, "invisible" solar roof tile, produced by Tesla as the owner of original developers, SolarCity. It may interest you to read some of the immediate debate about the usefulness or otherwise of this most recent innovation. And for anyone who'd like a bit more basic technical background to the discussion, engineering-timelines provides a handy "how to" explanation of How a photovoltaic tile works.

For Tesla's undeniably beautiful cars, however, it appears that solar roofs are not to become an option in the near future. Not so the Revero from Karma Automotive, which promises to release its part solar-powered model next year (see below).  If you simply can't wait to find out more, maybe you can join the IET's visit to the Karma factory in Moreno Valley on 5th August this year.  I mean, you were going to California anyway to see those 400 historic lightbulbs...
The race is on... quite literally, if you pull up next to someone's new Tesla in the Karma Revero next year. Read all about it... but maybe the Nissan Leaf is better suited to your budget.

photo : copyright Karma Automotive