A book review that was recently recently drawn to our attention describes how Britain lagged behind other countries in discovering “the joys of electricity”. We are struck by parallels with the UK’s metric conversion.
Children of light: how electricity changed Britain forever, by Gavin Weightman was published ten years ago. A review by Dominic Sandbrook appeared shortly afterwards in the Sunday Times Magazine. He wrote:
“Although the potential of electric power had been clear as early as the 1830s, when Michael Faraday developed the first primitive generator, it was not until the last three decades of the 19th century that it became synonymous with modernity itself.
“In 1878, Joseph Swan had obtained a patent for his new electric light bulb, beating the American, Thomas Edison, … by barely a year. Swan’s Gateshead house was the first in the world to be fully fitted with light bulbs, and in 1881 he installed 1,200 light bulbs in the Savoy Theatre, the world’s first public building to be lit entirely by electricity. In the same year, the town of Godalming became the first to have its own public electricity supply, with the streets lit by power from a nearby watermill. For a brief shining moment, Surrey was a beacon to the world.
“Unfortunately, it did not last. With the authorities anxious to prevent any firm securing a monopoly on electrical power, the Electric Lighting Act of 1882 kept districts small and limited franchises to just 21 years, thereby discouraging entrepreneurs from investing heavily in the new technology. What was intended as a spur to competition had the opposite effect. By 1890, … Britain was already falling behind Germany and America. In comparative terms, London was a city in darkness: although the brilliant Sebastian Ferranti had built the world’s first modern power station in Deptford, government restrictions strangled his fledgling West End network. An industrial power that had once been addicted to innovation was becoming increasingly conservative: as late as 1910, just 6 in 100 British homes were lit by electricity. By 1926, almost incredibly, electricity consumption per head was higher in Tasmania.”
And the parallels with the metric changeover?
At sea, Harrison’s chronometer together with astronavigation and aided by a decimal measurement system for distance, gave Britain’s navies an advantage. But our medieval measurements were clearly less than ideal, and Gunter and Wilkins in the 17th century and James Watt in the 18th made proposals for rationalising them by introducing decimals. An attempt at reform was made in 1824, but thereafter throughout the 19th century, Government and Parliament resisted change. It was not until 1965 that significant progress became possible. The changeover took place successfully in many sectors of the economy, and the UK became one of the first countries in the world to adopt the newly-defined International System of Measurement (SI). But, alas, the brakes went on at the UK Department of Transport in 1970 and are still on, aided and abetted by successive governments.
On the electrical front, Britain seems to have caught up with the rest of the world. We are into, for example, smart-phones, internet shopping, home coffee machines, heat-pump tumble driers, solar panels and wind turbines. But how long before the same can be said about measurement? How long before we enjoy, like most other countries in the world, the benefits of a single, simple, logical and universal measurement system? If parallels with the use of electricity provide an indication, it could be many years.