Guest Post: Electric Lighting in Political Spectacle (the Case of the Russian Empire) – Natalia Nikiforova

Last autumn I spent three months undertaking a research visit funded by the British Council Researcher Link Programme at the University of Leeds, which was an incredibly fruitful and inspiring experience. I especially appreciated the opportunity to tap into the insights of the sociocultural aspects of the domestication of electricity and its symbolic appropriation in the home environment, developed in Graeme Gooday’s works. Michael Kay’s initiatives dealing with museum exhibits, school education programs and theatre practice are a vibrant and motivating example of how theoretical findings can be transformed into tangible forms – something any scholar dreams of. These outstanding projects invigorated my own research perspectives.

In my research I am dealing with an underestimated but fascinating theme of the early electrification of 19th century Russia, since in Russian historiography electrification is considered mainly a Soviet project. My major focus is on the usage of electricity and electric lighting in the representation of Imperial power, as well as the circumstances of adoption of electricity at royal residences.

Artificial lighting was an important component of the modern urban landscape in Europe, as well as in Russia. Tsarist Russia was a kind of a “late comer” in terms of development of electrical industry. Electric lighting was successfully employed for temporary decoration of the city for public events, as well as for creating a special glamorous and festive atmosphere in parks, gardens, restaurants and shop windows. Along with the first attempts of using electric lighting in military and naval spheres, at some factories electric lighting was employed in big public events associated with monarchy and with the Imperial family. The symbolic capacity of electricity was used to enhance political spectacles of the Russian Empire. Starting from the coronation of Alexander I in 1856 sophisticated visual effects of electricity were used at ceremonies to support the monarch’s scenario of power (R. Wortman) and current ideology. In contrast to the Soviet vision where electricity promised to transform social order, in Tsarist Russia its capacities were employed to support and strengthen the existing system.

Pageants were the setting where electricity was made publicly visible. Through the wonder excited by displays, electric light was associated with national authority and the power of the emperor himself. Visual performances, which included a variety of media – fireworks, theatre plays, concerts, gas, oil and electric illumination – were applied to convey ideological messages about the monarchy and empire. One of the most striking examples of dramatic visual effects to enhance political display would be the presentation of an electrical bouquet to the Empress as a signal to start the illumination for the coronation ceremony of Nicholas II in 1896. Once she took the bouquet with hidden bulbs secretly connected to electric wires, it started glowing. And at the same very moment, lights spread further along the Kremlin walls.

Not only was the ceremonial illumination a fascinating spectacle, but so was the preparation itself. On the eve of the coronation, Russian cities turned into carpenter and engineering workshops as special pavilions and decorations were built.

The variety of electric effects was the most diverse during the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896, and included:

Despite lavish electric illumination at Imperial ceremonies and decoration with electric lighting of certain exhibitions and public events, there was a gap between the material existence of electric infrastructure and cultural imagination and enthusiasm. The slow development of electrification in Tsarist Russia has been explained by restrictive political rules and lack of interest of certain governmental structures (J. Coopersmith). A rigid centralised system of promoting and developing new technologies prevented widespread adoption of electricity. The Imperial government did not deem electrical technology strategically important before the World War I.  Although we may observe successful employment of the symbolic possibilities of electric lighting at public events and Imperial ceremonies, there was a gap between imagination and implementation.

Electricity for a long while remained a glamorous novelty, and first of all was used by the elite. Aristocracy, and especially the royal family were opinion leaders and an important stage of diffusion of the innovation. In Russian royal residences the first lighting and power systems were installed, and the novelty was tested and presented to the high society. Residences may even be seen as “showcases” and “testing labs” of new technological solutions.

This perspective opens a broader theme of Imperial technological patronage, that stayed throughout the 19th century in Russia. Royal patrons were also closely involved in issues of technological development, education and research (financing enterprises, research and educational institutions, members of the royal family headed the Academy of Sciences – for instance, the son of Alexander III, Mikhail, supported the Electrotechnical Institute in Saint-Petersburg). The highly centralised manner of governance was reflected in the personal involvement of the emperors in technological decisions. The Imperial family, due to their patronage of scientific and technological initiatives, could be associated with technological development, although a painful tension remained between Russian research endeavours and certain industrial backwardness, and between promising national potential and foreign presence.

The appearance and implementation of electric light in Russia is not just a reflection of the history of technology or technological progress. It is also intertwined with the history of royal palaces and court culture. Perception and presentation of electricity was influenced by political context of absolutist monarchy. To understand the complexity of the introduction of the novelty, it is essential to grasp aesthetic, emotional and social contexts. The end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century was a transition period, during which the utilisation of electrical technology was becoming a common and widespread practice. During this period, electricity was more of a symbolic object associated with wealth, power and progress but, at the same time it was not free from prejudice and romantic affections. A gap may be observed between public exposure and media enthusiasm about electricity, and its virtual lack in the majority of the country. Electricity thus remained in the realm of utopia and imaginative thinking, and also was connected to the throne through a range of representational practices.

About the author

Natalia Nikiforova is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at Saint-Petersburg Polytechnic University, Russia. Currently she is working on a project “Technological Innovations in Representation of Imperial Power: Social History of Electricity” supported by Russian Foundation for Humanities.

Notes from an Intern: Drafting the AHRC Grant

Taplow Court . Former residence of William Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough, and his wife, Lady Densborough. The site hosted gatherings of 'The Souls'.
Taplow Court. Former residence of William Grenfell, 1st Baron Desborough, and his wife, Lady Desborough. The site hosted gatherings of the aristocratic social group ‘The Souls’.

This will be my final blog post as part of my internship with the ‘Electrifying the Country House’ (ECH) project. It has been quite a journey! I enjoyed many parts of the process: learning about the development of electricity in late nineteenth century England, discovering the aristocrats that helped move the development along, and uncovering the fascinating personalities of the engineers who helped electrify the country houses. The final part of my internship was more hands-on – it gave me the opportunity to be directly involved with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant application. I was responsible for drafting several sections in the application, one of them being the ‘Academic Beneficiaries’: listing which groups of scholars would benefit from this project.

A portrait of Ethel Grenfell, Baroness Desborough from 1909.
Portrait of Ethel Grenfell, Baroness Desborough, from 1909.

Michael, the postdoctoral researcher of the ECH project, delegated this task to me in part because I was a literary studies student. I was able to identify areas that might not initially be obvious to someone working within the history of science. This was the case in previous assignments; for example, I had come across the aristocratic and elite social group, ‘The Souls’, which gathered in the home of Lady Desborough. Among her guests at these gatherings were Sir Winston Churchill and science fiction novelist H. G. Wells. Because of her involvement with notable aristocratic figures who were involved with the domestication of electricity, I suggested that the project pursue Lady Desborough’s letters in the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies. I was pleased to discover that ‘The Souls’ had yet to be considered by the ECH project, and that these archives could be an interesting line of inquiry.

Portrait of author Lyman Frank Baum (1911)
Portrait of author Lyman Frank Baum (1911)

Turning my attention to the ‘Academic Beneficiaries’ of the ECH project, I immediately saw that this project would have far-reaching impacts on the study of English literature. Two of the primary texts are literary ones: The Master Key: An Electrical Fairy Tale, Founded Upon the Mysteries of Electricity and the Optimism of Its Devotee (1901) was written by L. Frank Baum, best known as the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Hodge and His Masters (1880) penned by Richard Jefferies, a nature and children’s writer. Both authors are known as early writers of science fiction. Literary scholars of the late Victorian era and early 20th century writings, specifically, work with texts produced during the age of electrical technology developments; such an exciting technological progress would have greatly inspired authors of the time. Findings from the ECH project will thus be helpful in providing a historical context for the analysis of these literary texts, as well as other works of early science fiction.

Other academic beneficiaries would be those working in tourism studies, a subject which usually incorporates a practical element into its student programmes. This project’s partnership with country houses such as Harewood House and Hatfield House can therefore serve as a helpful model of academic institutions collaborating with sites of tourism. The ECH project will also be assisting with the development of new media for these country houses, incorporating information gathered on the history of electricity to provide visitors with a more nuanced perspective of the houses as historical sites. Tourism students and academic staff will be able to observe the impact and usefulness of these media on touristic sites, and apply it to their own projects.

At the moment, the drafts of the AHRC application are being reviewed and edited, and I find myself coming to the end of my internship. Looking back on the past few months, I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with the ECH project as I was able to develop many transferable skills. One of the most important skills developed was analytical research of archival materials. Being able to pinpoint the location of historical sources will prove important in any future work I do – academic or otherwise. I have also gained more confidence in my ability to conduct research on any given topic, independently or collaboratively. As I was also working on my thesis and running my own research group alongside this internship, this project helped me develop the added skill of organisation. It allowed me to hone my ability to prioritize, and also to be more communicative in order to ensure that all activities run smoothly.

As co-founder and co-organizer of activities for my own research group, Reading the Fantastic, my internship was helpful in understanding the funding application process for a large-scale project. In particular, I was able to obtain a more concrete grasp of the term ‘impact’ in terms of research activity. This will help in the planning of future research activities, and it will especially help in applying for future research funding.

Finally, I was given a glimpse into the long process of putting together a large-scale project and I am now able to appreciate the subtleties of how a project comes into being – from being inspired by previous projects, to strengthening existing partnerships, and then searching for new ways to constantly improve the project.

In short, this internship provided me with the invaluable opportunity to not only grow in terms of knowledge, but also in terms of managing and expanding a project. I would like to give my heartfelt thanks to Michael, who took a chance on a literary student such as myself, and for being such a wonderful mentor throughout this journey. I hope that the ‘Electrifying the Country House’ project continues to grow, and I’m sure I’ll be seeing more of it in the future.

Guest Post: “Lights Up!” Theatre as Scholarship – Alona Bach

cover of
“Watts” in a Home. Image by IET Archives.

When I told the archivists at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in London that I would be writing my undergraduate thesis as a play about Britain’s Electrical Association for Women (EAW), they pointed me to a play written and performed by the EAW in 1930. The play, “Watts” in a Home, was just one manifestation of the EAW’s central mission to free housewives from “domestic drudgery” by introducing electricity into British homes. The four-act play aimed to instruct its audience in the possibilities of the new “electrical age” by dramatising the history of domestic lighting from 1880 to 1929.[1] One of the particularly exciting aspects of “Watts” in a Home was that its characters addressed concerns about electricity held by the EAW’s audience while using real electric lighting onstage.

The EAW’s decision to mirror the content of their play in its form became the foundation of my undergraduate thesis: I, too, would write about the history of electrification while paying conscious attention to the way electric lights would be used onstage.[2] My play would also address the different techniques used to reach audiences of early twentieth-century popularisation of electricity, while meta-theatrically employing the same popularisation techniques on my play’s audience.

It was a big project for a year of work. But with the indefatigable guidance of my advisor Dr. Jenna Tonn (and the rocky road of revision familiar to academics and playwrights alike), I ended up with a final project which fused the history of science and performing arts. The final version of my thesis began as an analytical paper on dramatising science, drawing from scholarship in both the history of science and performance studies. It also included two chapters on the intended audiences of the EAW’s work, as seen in their private correspondence and magazine. The final chapter was a full-length play with footnotes (titled Wire in the Garden in homage to “Watts” in a Home), which dramatized 108 letters sent between Caroline Haslett and her friend and fellow engineer, Margaret Partridge, between 1925 and 1927.[3] Wire in the Garden focused on Partridge’s difficulties in electrically lighting the rural town of Thorverton, Devon in the face of rural anxieties about electricity’s safety, appearance, and religious significance. Here are a few things I learned from the project — and why I think performance should be used more often as a tool for history of science scholarship.

[photo] Partridge, Haslett, and apprentices standing in line.
Margaret Partridge, Caroline Haslett, and apprentices. From left to right: M. D. Rowbottom, Beatrice Shilling, Margaret Partridge, Kathleen Bunker, Mona Willis, Caroline Haslett. Originally printed in The Woman Engineer 4, no. 3 (June 1935): 35, Women’s Engineering Society, IET Archives. Photo courtesy of IET Archives.
Dramatisation mandates deeper research.

Scripting Wire in the Garden required me to re-imagine the lives of my historical actors in intimate detail: their conversations, their physical actions, the mundane things they needed to do to get through a normal day. This meant that my research for the play needed to be both broader, and in some cases deeper, than dictated by my analytical chapters. Though I was writing about the EAW’s popularization strategies, I ended up researching things like the history of rural British Baptists,[4] and asking myself unexpected questions about the physicality of electrifying a town: how might Partridge’s power and expertise be established or challenged in the context of a team of workers, and would rural villagers see certain physical demands of electrification as more problematic than others in the context of Partridge’s femininity? These questions led me to a more nuanced understanding of who Partridge was communicating with, and how she chose to do so.

But though I’d worked hard to reconstruct the cultural landscape in which the events of the play took place, nothing showed me the oversights in my research quite like handing the script to my director and actors. After only a few hours of workshopping, my creative team sent me back to the drawing board (and archives) with questions about the play which were not only dramaturgical but also historiographical. One character was portrayed too reductively; my limited lens was clear in the script but had not been so noticeable in my analytical chapters. Actors asked me to clarify the legal and commercial aspects of Partridge’s work so that they could better understand the stakes of a scene. The director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, told me to learn more about the layout and construction of rural power stations, and to consider how that might have affected the contents of Partridge’s letters. Their training in theatre had shown them that the holes in my research were not only key to understanding how technology, gender, and popularisation were interacting, but also needed to be filled in to make the play structurally sound.

Theatre embraces and, more importantly, acknowledges the imagination required to tell a complete story.

Theatre is mimesis, imitation, “lying in order to tell the truth.” The real bodies which interact onstage are in tension with the constructed, rehearsed nature of a play’s performance — and audiences know that they are witnessing a fictionalized version of reality. But while I was fictionalizing history in my play, I tried not to falsify it. Only three of the characters in Wire in the Garden are historical figures; the remaining four are “composite characters,” because, though they themselves are fictional, I’d created them by combining trends, stories, and language from archival and secondary sources. It was particularly interesting to see these semi-imagined characters (e.g. a young housewife) fill out perspectives on rural electrification which were missing from Partridge’s letters.

Theatre is a multi-sensory art form, and the words of the script are only the bones.

My play became much richer when I embraced the fact that not everything needed to be spoken. Instead, I could capitalize on movement, scenography, and sound in order to communicate more nuanced ideas from my research. When I recreated ambiguous images from the historical record instead of explaining them away, audiences had the opportunity to interpret the images in the context of the other information included in the play. For example, to evoke the references to Eden peppered throughout my sources, I wrote in a huge tree to dominate the stage with its trunk of wires and pendulous bulbs hanging down like fruits. The tree could be read as a symbol of technological advancement and redemption; it might also reflect the intrusion of technology into idyllic, righteous, pastoral life (a la Leo Marx); maybe it brought light and knowledge to dark places, or destroyed what was already there. Or maybe all of those things. Or maybe none. That question was left open to the audience, inviting them to reconcile differing historical (and historiographical) perspectives.

Like the fantastical visualizations of electricity in its early days (fairies, and wizards, and imps, oh my!), writing fantasy into my script became a useful tool even as I was tied to accurately representing historical sources. By incorporating fantastical elements into different styles of scenes (e.g. dreams, advertisements, presentations, letters), I was able to quote lots of material directly from my sources. I hoped that by quoting these sources directly, my audience would note both how popularisation was deployed in early-twentieth century Britain, as well as how they were receiving it as its audience. This would lead them to experientially understand popularisation as Roger Cooter and Stephen Pumfrey’s conception of “grafting, appropriation, and transformation” of ideas, instead of the more traditional (and problematic) metaphors of “dilution, […] contamination, contagion, seduction, or colonization.”[5]

Moving forward…

Dramaturgy, like history, is a rigorous craft — and just as watching and sketching are tools for biologists, I believe dramatisation can serve historians of science. In my own project, writing the play was as much a part of my methodology as secondary sourcework or peer review. It forced me to empathize with all of my historical actors, work harder to reconstruct their cultural landscape, and notice (even challenge) the assumptions I was making throughout. It was my first foray into an interdisciplinary crossroads where I hope more scholars will return.

The good news is that dramatisation is not as far from standard historical methodology as one might originally think. Historians have acknowledged the pedagogical benefits of reenacting experiments,[6] historian of science Robert Marc Friedman has written compellingly about his experiences dramatising his past research,[7] and a recent plenary at the 2015 annual meeting of the History of Science Society featured historians performing as early modern readers in mob caps. Though writing a play like Wire in the Garden is certainly not going to be the best methodological strategy for every project in the history of science, intentionality and innovation in choosing the form through which to communicate scholarship can be a productive way to shed light on parts of the history of science – like interpersonal relationships, cultural landscapes, and practitioners’ bodies – which fight against a two-dimensional rendering.

Thoughts? Would love to hear your responses in the comments below!

About the author

Alona Bach recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in History of Science and Theatre, Dance, and Media. This post is based on her thesis, “Lights Up: Performing Science and the Electrical Association for Women, 1925-1927,” which was advised by Dr. Jenna Tonn and received playwriting support from Dr. Joyce van Dyke. In the fall, Alona will begin the MPhil programme in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University. She plans to continue to work as an actor and playwright, and pursue a career in museums.


[1] “EAW play, ‘Watts in a Home’,” Electrical Association for Women, item 31, series UK0108 NAEST 093/09, IET Archives. The play’s title was characteristically punny. Correspondence between EAW founder Caroline Haslett and her friend Margaret Partridge, for example, praised an EAW colleague who proposed a talk entitled “Ohm Sweet Ohm,” and Partridge often peppered her letters with puns such as: “must cease this babbling of watts & watt not.” See Haslett to Partridge, 18 May 1925, and Partridge to Haslett, 28 May 1925, Box 9, Correspondence with Margaret Partridge, Women’s Engineering Society, IET Archives.

[2] A similar technique is also used provocatively in Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room: Or, The Vibrator Play, which examines female sexuality in tandem with the domestication of electricity.

[3] Box 9, Correspondence with Margaret Partridge, Women’s Engineering Society, IET Archives.

[4] Partridge poked fun in her letters at a Baptist preacher who preached about “the Mysteries of Electricity,” as well as her secretary in Thorverton, “a godly man much respected in the chapel” who would “pray with the engine if it won’t run – & sing psalms to the batteries if they do gas exceedingly.” See Partridge to Haslett, 3 May 1925, Box 9, Correspondence with Margaret Partridge, Women’s Engineering Society, IET Archives.

[5] Roger Cooter and Stephen Pumfrey, “Separate Spheres and Public Places: Reflections on the History of Science Popularization and Science in Popular Culture,” History of Science 32, no. 97 Part 3 (September 1994): 249.

[6] For more on reenacting experiments, see, for example, the working group at the University of Oldenburg and Professor Pamela Smith at Columbia.

[7] Robert Marc Friedman, a historian of science who later became a playwright, argues that theatre should be used to transform episodes and figures from the history of science into “public property” belonging to a collective “cultural heritage.” Why? “Science,” he writes, “is too important a societal activity to insulate its practices, results, and consequences from public scrutiny and reflection.” Putting narratives of science into the public domain via plays invites the public to question and challenge the role of science in society. It also reveals the process and failures of science versus just its results, and thereby acts as a window into spaces previously reserved for authorities. See Robert Marc Friedman, “Balancing Act: Drama about Science Based on History,” in The SciArtist: Carl Djerassi’s Science-in-Literature in Transatlantic and Interdisciplinary Contexts, ed. Walter Grünzweig, vol. 11, Transnational and Transatlantic American Studies (Wien: Lit, 2012): 63-73.

Guest Post: Electrifying the Irish Country House – Cillian Lalor

The study of the Irish country house has attracted a great deal of attention from scholars in recent years who have begun to unravel many aspects of its history, in particular its relationship with the wider Irish society. The architecture and material culture of the country house have also attracted a plethora of recent publications. However, there are many aspects yet to be researched. One of these is the electrification of the country house, part of the modernisation processes of the early twentieth century. This study was carried out with the guidance of Professor Terence Dooley of the Centre for the study of Historical Irish Houses and Estates (CSHIHE) at Maynooth University, for an undergraduate module on the Irish country house. The electrification of the Irish country house project was based on research using estate records in the National Library of Ireland. These included the electrical specifications and reports on two country houses, namely Doneraile Court in County Cork and Westport House in County Mayo. Below is the original copy for the electrical specifications for Doneraile Court (note the date 1906). The project appealed particularly to me as I am a qualified electrician.

By 1910, the electrification of Irish country houses was spreading. But why did country house owners, who had previously spent enormous amounts of money installing gas lighting, then decide to install this new technology? There were four main reasons. Firstly, electricity was adopted within Irish country houses because of its practical advantage over gas. Although gas lighting did provide the house with adequate illumination, it also produced unpleasant and damaging fumes which were deemed potentially harmful to the residents and interior fabric . Secondly, despite declining finances, the late nineteenth century was an era of conspicuous consumption and many country house owners “had a demand for the latest thing.” [1]  Many new clients of electricity in the domestic sphere were considered ‘progressives’, politically, socially and aesthetically, and the demand for electricity was driven by fashion and a desire for modernity. Thirdly, certain houses received capital injections of income from the sale of land under Government land acts, during the early twentieth century in Ireland, in particular the 1903 Wyndham Land Act. Finally, during an era when night-time normally brought darkness to the whole countryside, an illuminated house was possibly seen as another potent status symbol.

Lalor fig 1

Figure 1: Specification and Estimate for Doneraile Court.

Source: Electrical installation specification, in Doneraile papers MS 34, 107/11, National Library of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland, 22 October 1906.

Permanent private electrical lighting installations required a self-sufficient, electrical generating system including a dynamo, driven by a power source such as a waterwheel or a water-powered turbine, steam engine or internal combustion engine. In 1906, Lord Castletown (Bernard Edward Barnaby FitzPatrick, 2nd Baron Castletown 1849-1937) of Doneraile Court in County Cork was eager to modernise his house. [2] The man in charge of this installation was T. W. Storey, chief engineer and manager of the Alliance Electrical Company Limited, Dublin. Lighting a mansion such as Doneraile Court in 1908 required 383 diverse light fittings and the whole installation cost £1098 11s 11d (£83,000 today). The “Specification & Estimate” for Doneraile Court provides a valuable insight into the electrification of large houses in the early twentieth century. Since Doneraile Court contained its own sawmill, it was proposed to drive the dynamo designated for the house via belting. This was done from a counter shaft in the engine house, thus saving the expense of a separate engine. The dynamo machine used was a “Standard I.G type dynamo” and cost £74 2s. 6d. [3]

In Doneraile Court, the supply of electricity to the house meant a 500 yard overhead run of cables (via wooden poles) from the main switchboard beside the dynamo in the engine house to the main house. In order to maintain the authenticity of the landscape, these wooden poles were hidden by meandering them strategically through the woodland. The type of cable used for this long run was: “stranded copper 7/16 insulated with triplex aerial insulation on high tension insulation”. [4] This type of cable was necessary as it provided suitable protection from the trees within the grounds. If the trees came into contact with electrical conductors (cables) that had poor insulation, it would cause a short circuit, thus creating a major electrical fault.

Similarly, Westport House in County Mayo underwent huge remodelling and modernisation in the early twentieth century. This can be largely attributed to the 6th Marquess of Sligo (George Ulick Browne 1856–1935), who was the newly established owner, after his father passed away. [5] The 6th Marquess obtained a wide knowledge of the workings of the estate and in doing so, made essential improvements to the house with regard to plumbing, heating and electricity around 1914. The Marques hired R. E. Mellon, an architect, A. E. Porte, a consulting engineer and T. E. Brunker, an electrical engineer, to oversee the entire operation. Overall, 250 light fixtures were installed and the whole installation cost £800 (£67,000 today). [6]

The control centre for the installations in Doneraile Court and Westport House were the main switchboards. In the days before the use of plastic materials and miniaturisation of components, this was a very impressive piece of equipment. Below is an example of an early twentieth century switchboard and it illustrates the various parts of a typical lighting switchboard used during this period. There are two circuits. The components on the left hand side are for charging and those on the right hand side for discharging. Furthermore, each circuit is protected with fuses and an ammeter to monitor the respective currents. The switchboard cost £49 and had to be fitted as near to the dynamo as possible.

Lalor fig 2

Figure 2: Lighting Switchboard.

Source: Charles Carson, Technology and the Big House in Ireland, c.1800-c.1930 (New York, 2009).

Once electricity had reached the house, the next phase of the operation was wiring the house with lights, switches and fixtures. In Doneraile Court, the type of cable that was used throughout the house was referred to as “B” type. [7] This type of cable was insulated with PVC and had a guaranteed resistance of 1250 mega ohms. In both houses the methods used to contain wires within the houses was similar. As they were eighteenth century houses T. E. Brunker asserted that ‘cutting out and making good’ would be necessary, that is cutting through walls, partitions, ceilings, floors and so on. However, there were methods used to limit the damage to the house whilst wiring for electricity. In Westport House, a lot of the cables were wired under the floorboards, out of sight, as much as possible. This involved the lifting of floor boards throughout the house and pulling the cables through the main structural joists to their designated location.

A supplementary method called wooden casing/capping (illustrated below) was employed in both houses, to hide wires. In the Doneraile Court specifications, the electrical contractor expected “all cables and wires would be enclosed, hidden out of sight in American wooden casing.” [8] The carpenter and the electrician had to work together, and it was the electrician who decided what pieces of wood needed modification. I examined a rewiring project by the National Trust in England. The house in question was Cragside in Northumberland, which in 1880 was one of the first houses to be wired electrically. Much of the capping and casing used in this example was under the floorboards, inside the walls, around door frames, within skirting boards, all designed to avoid altering the house’s appearance.

Lalor fig 3

Figure 3:  Example of Timber casing and capping

Source:  Electrical topics, ‘Wooden casing and capping wiring’ available at: (

When the house was wired, switches were required, either to break an electrical circuit (turning off a light) or to divert current from one conductor to another. In Doneraile Court and Westport House, the type of switches that were used were of a Tumbler pattern, having porcelain base and polished brass cover. The diagram below demonstrates the inner working of the switch.

Lalor fig 4

Figure 4: Tumbler Switch, with cover off.

Source: David Salomons, Electrical Light Installations: A Practical Handbook (London, 1901)

The light fixture that typified the advancement of technology, whilst remaining aesthetically pleasing, was the chandelier. To best exemplify how spectacular chandeliers appeared in county houses, the three Murano Venetian coloured glass chandeliers that hung in Castletown House, County Kildare are pictured below. One can only imagine the sense of awe guests would have felt, casting their eyes upon such stunning light fixtures.

Lalor fig 5

Figure 5: Murano Venetian coloured glass chandeliers, Castletown House.

Source: Noel Byrne, ‘The Murano Glass of Castletown House’ available at: (

The difference which electrification made to the Irish country house is exemplified in a captivating letter written by Seymour Leslie of Glaslough House in County Monaghan to his brother on 14 July 1916:

“Dear Massa. The electric light was switched on at Glaslough [Castle Leslie] last week for the first time. Interesting discoveries of old masters and priceless books soon followed in consequence!!S.” [9]

Leslie’s use of the word “discoveries” highlights the changes the electric light brought to Irish country houses in the early twentieth century; it literally and metaphorically shed new light on the houses’ interiors.

About the author

Cillian Lalor recently received his BA in history and geography from Maynooth University, with first class honors in history. He has been accepted into the PME (Professional Masters of Education) programme in Maynooth University, where he will qualify as a secondary school teacher in these fields. Prior to undertaking his BA, he trained and qualified as an electrician.


[1] Moore Harrison, Abigail & Gooday, Graeme, ‘Decorative Electricity: Standen and the aesthetics of new lighting in the nineteenth century home’ in Nineteenth Century Contexts, XXXV (2013), pp 363-430.

[2] Carson, Charles, Technology and the Big House in Ireland, c.1800-c.1930 (New York, 2009).

[3] Electrical installation specification, in Doneraile papers, MS 34,107/11, National Library of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland, 22 October 1906.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Report on electrical lighting at Westport House Co. Mayo for The Marquess of Sligo, in Westport Estate papers MS 41, 055/27, National Library of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland, 8 December 1913.

[6] Carson, Charles, Technology and the Big House in Ireland, c.1800-c.1930 (New York, 2009).

[7] Electrical installation specification, in Doneraile papers, MS 34,107/11, National Library of Ireland, Dublin, Ireland, 22 October 1906.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Carson, Charles, Technology and the Big House in Ireland, c.1800-c.1930 (New York, 2009).

Guest Post: Eating Electricity and Delivering India – Animesh Chatterjee

Several Bengali writers of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries used satire as their literary response to the social and political complexities of colonial modernity and anti-colonial Indian traditionalism. Satirical texts, and especially drama, ridiculed subjects as disparate as religious reformers and reforms, state and civil institutions, technological modernity, and scientific theories, usually from the ideological viewpoint of the emerging Bengali upper-caste middle-class. The introduction of urban and domestic electrification, and the emergence of electricity as a scientific phenomenon in colonial India from the 1890s onwards resulted in Bengali writers integrating and exploring electricity in their fictional and satirical works. Bengali satirists added their own interpretations of electrification, as well as their hopes and fears for its influence on the Indian individual, family and society. For several satirists, the outcomes of electrification were not restricted to the physical effects of lighting and shocks; the Western origins of electrical technologies were considered dangerous to Indian cultural values, lifestyles and outlook. This is particularly evident in Amrita Lal Bose’s drama, The Babu: A Bengali Society Farce, originally written and performed in the 1890s at the Star Theatre in Calcutta, and translated into English in 1911. The Babu was not the first drama to satirically engage at length with the Bengali middle-class replicating British language, manners, attitudes and practices; however, it offers a number of ideas and associations that indicate the complexities of Western technological modernity from within the subjectivities of the contemporary Bengali intelligentsia.

The Babu

The third scene of the first act opens in the common room of the Brahmo Samaj, an upper-caste Hindu socio-religious reform institution. The Hindu religious reformer Sajanikanta, and the Western-educated scientist Asaniprakas are seen debating the nature of God. While Sajanikanta terms God as the ‘creator’ of beings, Asaniprakas rubbishes all of God’s creations as merely results of evolution by ‘physical change’.[1] When interrupted by news of the Brahmo Samaj’s plans of remarrying a widow, Asaniprakas suggests how the Brahmo Samaj should use science to remove women’s pangs of widowhood. He asserts: “If I can produce children by means of electricity, I’ll produce them; otherwise farewell to progeny. But by science I can remove the pangs of widowhood.”[2] He adds: “I think I can make such a galvanic battery that if the patient holds its poles in her hands, the pangs of widowhood will at once be numbed.”[3]

Electricity is presented here as a preternatural force that could supplement natural processes with artificially enhanced ones. On a deeper level, electricity and electrical technologies are perceived as harbingers of radical changes that could disrupt traditional and long-established cultural values and schemes. A further aspect of Asaniprakas’s representation of electricity as an important aspect of the body’s and society’s operations is offered in references that amalgamate electricity as a socio-political tool with the wider contemporary Indian nationalist interests of autonomy and self-rule. Arguing against the Brahmo Samaj’s stance of delivering India through socio-religious reforms, Asaniprakas says: “If India is to be delivered, it won’t be by delivering lectures and remarrying widows. If we are to attain autonomy, rest assured it will be by the help of science alone.”[4] He says further: “Mark my words, if I live – and I’m bound to as I eat a quantity of electricity twice a day – I will by the force of electricity abolish the caste system, effect the remarriage of widows, teach women to ride horses, establish a Parliament in India, and many other deeds besides.”[5]

The Babu Dialogues

While there is virtually no technical detail in The Babu, the range of topics that it related to electricity demonstrated that electricity was not only viewed by writers in terms of scientific and technological development, but it also served several explanatory and metaphorical purposes. Asaniprakas’s overemphasis on science and technology to bring about social and political reforms parodies the contemporary Westernised Bengali ‘babu’ and his pretensions to rival the British in intellect and culture. Asaniprakas’s plans of using electricity to deliver India also hint at the contemporary ideological battle between anti-colonial nationalism and Western imperialism. Partha Chatterjee suggests that anti-colonial nationalism in India called for a separation between spiritual and material domains. According to anti-colonial traditionalists, nationalist sovereignty could be achieved by studying and replicating Western material culture and modernity in the outside world, while protecting Indian cultural values, spirituality and identity within the domestic sphere.[6] In The Babu, electricity is depicted as a dominant force of the material world capable of overpowering the spiritual and cultural domain sufficiently to change it.

The scene’s concerns about electricity relate to the wider issues of domestication of electricity in colonial India that my current research seeks to examine. My research will study how the acceptance or rejection of electricity in Indian domestic and urban spaces was closely linked to the paradoxes that characterised Indian middle-class identity. The research aims to trace the several interpretive positions or meanings that were adopted in relation to electrification, and how domestic spaces became contact zones for Western conceptions of technological modernity, Indian cultural values and nationalism, contestations of gender roles, and the shaping of social inequality and stratification.

About the author

Animesh Chatterjee is a first year PhD researcher at Leeds Trinity University, studying ‘The Social Life of Electricity in Urban Colonial India, c. 1880-1920.’ In 2013, he graduated with an MSc (distinction) in History of Science, Medicine and Technology from the London Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (run jointly by UCL and Imperial College London until August 2013). Animesh has also previously worked as a Research Volunteer at the Science Museum, London, and as an Education Development Consultant at Pimpri Chinchwad Science Park in Pune, India.


[1] Nibaran Chandra Chatterjee, English Translation of “The Babu” (A Bengali Society Farce) by Babu Amrita Lal Bose [Calcutta: Sanyal & Co., 1911], p.22

[2] ibid, p. 24

[3] ibid, p. 24

[4] ibid, p. 26

[5] ibid, pp. 26-27

[6] Partha Chatterjee, The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus [New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999]

Also see:

Partha Mitter, ‘Cartoons of the Raj’, History Today (September 1997), pp. 16-21

Stella Pratt-Smith, Transformations of Electricity in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Science [Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2016]

Prabhat Kumar, ‘Colonialism, Modernity and Hindi Satire in the Late 19th Century’, Zeitschrift für Indologie und Südasienstudien (ZIS), 28 (2011), pp. 1-25

Notes from an Intern: Stories from the Archives

Harewood House
Harewood House

Hello again, and welcome to another installment of ‘Notes from an Intern’. For the second phase of my internship, I was tasked with extracting information from materials gathered by Michael in the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS). While a few of the letters were addressed directly to Lord Harewood, most of the documents were between electrical companies and Claude M.S. Pilkington Esquire, estate agent to the 5th Earl of Harewood. All of these documents (dated between 1900 and 1902) were in regards to the fitting of electricity in Harewood House.


When I met with Michael to discuss this next stage of my internship, he mentioned that the wide early usage of hydropower to generate electricity was not common knowledge. It is a fascinating little titbit, considering that one of the country houses that had cropped up in the literature survey was Cragside, the first home in the world to be lit by hydro-electricity. William Armstrong, the first Baron Armstrong, had been responsible for its electric installation. In several publications, where some were a part of the National Trust’s efforts in establishing an Energy Centre based on the work of William George Armstrong, different authors had investigated the historical installation of the hydraulic engines and pumps in Cragside. But it is fascinating to discover that within 30 years, this same technology would become so popular that it would be one of the ‘go-to’ methods of technology for electrifying other country houses.

For the past week, I had pored over many letters and documents sent by electrical engineers in the early 1900s. It is clear that Lord Harewood had written to several companies, requesting an estimate of costs to electrify Harewood House. Most of these estimates were based on the electrical companies’ suggestion to use hydro-electric power. One such company was Drake and Gorham; they cited Chatsworth House as a ‘specimen of a water power installation’, where they had ‘two turbines of 50 H.P. each and one of 25 H.P. and something like 1,000 lights’. In their letter, Drake and Gorham invited Claude Pilkington to view the estate and not too long afterwards, the agent of the 9th Duke of Devonshire himself, Mr. Gilson Martin, wrote to Pilkington in regards to arranging a viewing of the installation.

Based on the letters that I had viewed, invitations to view installations in other country houses seemed to be quite the norm. Another company, Edmundsons Electricity Corporation, Limited, provided Pilkington with several options in viewing their water-power installations. They listed one at ‘The Holme, Burnley’, which was ‘the residence of The Rev. Masters Whittaker’, and another was in Netherby, a property owned by Sir Richard Grahams in Carlisle.

There were plenty of other companies that had written to Claude Pilkington, but one appeared to have begun carrying out an installation scheme that involved both water and steam plants. This installation scheme had been one of three proposed to Harewood by L.H. Balfour. He provided a report on electric light installations in Harewood House, detailing the different schemes, their advantages and disadvantages, as well as how much each would cost. Even with such explicit renderings of cost, it seems that the endeavour to electrify the country house was more expensive than had been initially imagined.

There is, of course, more information to be extracted from the documents found in the Archives; my notes here represent only a fifth of the material that Michael had photographed. I had found the whole process of discovering the history of electrifying Harewood House thrilling. I was particularly struck by how much personality I was able to derive from the letters. Even though the documents I looked at mainly dealt with costs and machinery, the manner in which the letters were written provided a window into the past lives of the people involved in the project of electrifying Harewood House. It just goes to show the rich stories that can potentially be unearthed and told in the present tours at Harewood House.

The next stage of my internship project involves putting together the actual grant to make this a reality! I will write again once that has been completed. Until then, I hope you readers have found the information in this section interesting, and that you’ll keep on reading to see the progress of the ‘Electrifying the country house’ project.

Notes from an Intern: Surveying the Sources

Hatfield House

<a href=" .uk/images/hh2.jpg”>Hatfield House

As a final year PhD student in the University of Leeds, I was excited at being given the opportunity to intern with the ‘Electrifying the Country House’ project – finally, I would be able to analyse something beyond my own research area! And what a research area this turned out to be. My first task was to compile a literature survey, to browse through old books, new books, journal articles, newspaper clippings, and obscure websites. And what was I tasked in finding? The use of electricity, or other new technologies, by British aristocrats in their country houses. The time period? Starting from the late nineteenth (1880s) to the early twentieth century (pre-World War II).

I discovered quickly enough that it was easier to obtain resources about certain aristocrats as compared to others. A name that came up frequently was Lord Robert Cecil, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, who had been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for a total of over thirteen years. In regards to the project, we were particularly interested in his scientific experimentation within his country seat, Hatfield House. Most of the relevant literature found on Lord Salisbury pertained to his installation of electrical devices around Hatfield, and his laboratory being the site of new scientific (including electrical) discoveries. These sources were written by family members (e.g. David Cecil, the youngest son of the 4th of Marquess of Salisbury), fellow academics (e.g. Professor Graeme Gooday, Principal Investigator of this project), as well as Lord Salisbury’s peers (e.g. an unknown author praised the Marquess’ scientific endeavors in a journal article from 1903). Lord Cecil had plenty of people writing about him and thus will prove to be a solid starting point for this project.

Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Sir Winston Churchill, on the other hand, will prove to be more difficult. In Professor Gooday’s ‘Domesticating Electricity’, he had discussed her dealings with the Crompton company, which provided Lady Churchill free services as a manner to advertise their company to Churchill’s social network. Our main understanding of this aristocratic figure herself, however, comes from her memoirs. These were penned under her second husband’s name: Mrs. G. Cornwallis-West. With personal accounts on life in Blenheim Palace, Lady Churchill’s descriptions of the installation of electricity will give an insider’s view into life during this period.

Another fascinating find from this literature survey is the life of American heiress Lilian Warren Price, also known as Lily Spencer-Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. Project Researcher Dr Michael Kay had written about her husband, the 8th Duke of Marlborough and his involvement in telephony. When researching about the renovations of Blenheim Palace by the Duke, however, books and articles referred to the heiress’ integral role in financially supporting his endeavours. This creates an interesting aspect to the Duke’s renovations where there may be room for further research into the extent of the Duchess’ influence on electrifying Blenheim Palace.

Alongside the aristocrats that owned and renovated their country houses with electricity, there were also the employees ‘below the stairs’ that worked with the technology. Books on the life of those working ‘in service’ in these country houses provide a different perspective on the era. Alongside concepts of a ‘servantless house’, these books explore how people interacted with the technology of electricity, and how it helped (or hindered) their daily duties in these country houses.

I have outlined findings that are particularly interesting to me, but of course there are many other resources found while compiling this literature survey. A point that needs to be made, however, is in regards to resources not found during this research. There are gaps in knowledge that have yet to be filled, and may be filled by this project. One of the aristocratic figures that proved incredibly difficult to find resources on is the 5th Marquess of Anglesey. There are accounts of his lavish spending on his country seat, Plas Newydd, but I was unable to pin down any mention of his dealings with electricity. Thus an interesting gap that may warrant further research. Another is the aristocrats’ own personal relationship with technology – it would be fascinating to uncover their own notes and thoughts into the process of fitting their houses with electricity.

Which brings us to the next stage of this project – looking at historical documents from the West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS). With an understanding of the literature available in print as well as in digital archives, it will be exciting to see what new information can be found from the WYAS. I will write again when that time comes, and until then – I hope that you’ve found new interesting things to look into yourself!

Where do we go from here? Extending, and moving beyond, the project

The cast of Lotherton Electrified.

I am pleased to say that we have been given permission by the AHRC to extend the ‘Electrifying the country house‘ project by another two months; instead of ending at the beginning of May, we will now be continuing until July.  This is largely because we have already worked hard to produce more outputs than we originally expected, original and innovative outputs which we did not anticipate such as Electrified the musical, and our short film Lotherton Electrified.  In addition, I will be giving an extra public talk in June at Nostell Priory – a National Trust property near Wakefield, a town just outside Leeds – and presenting a paper on our work at an additional international conference in Canada at the end of June.

The question that remains is of course: what next for the ‘Electrifying the country house‘ project?  We are currently working on putting together proposals for a couple of different follow-on projects, one of which would build on the significance of the British aristocracy in promoting and disseminating new technologies in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries – as revealed in Domesticating Electricity.  Whilst the current project has focused solely on impact – working to apply the results of existing research for the benefit of collaborative partner organisations – this new project would generate new knowledge as well as impact and engagement activities and outputs.

As part of the process of writing this proposal, we have employed a postgraduate intern to support us, and she will be writing a couple of guest blog posts about her work over the next few weeks.  On the subject of guest writers, watch out also for some blog posts from other colleagues over the next couple of months addressing some of the themes of the project – such as the marketing, reception and use of electricity, technology and gender and electricity as power – in different national contexts and periods.  Indeed, if you‘ve seen something that interests you on this blog that relates to your own research and would like to write something to be published here, please do get in touch with me; it would be great to hear from a variety of voices as we enter the final stages of the project.