Explaining experimental electricity: animations at Cragside

As the project draws to a close we are polishing up our outputs ready for final delivery.  One of the outputs which we are producing for Cragside is a set of three bespoke educational animations to help volunteers to explain Cragside’s electrical heritage to visitors.  The animations have been produced by our undergraduate animation intern, Alex, and will be used to demonstrate how Lord Armstrong employed and experimented with electricity at Cragside, and how he used the surrounding landscape to generate hydroelectricity to light his house – the first private house to do so.

Of the three animations, one illustrates how the house’s iconic cloisonné lamps were originally electrified in December 1880.  This was a little unusual and can be hard to explain.  The only source we have is a letter Armstrong wrote to the Engineer in January 1881, in which he explained that the lamps could be switched off or on by picking them up and putting them down again.  As this was a very experimental period in the history of electrification, before switches were readily available, this was accomplished using a dish of mercury.

A wire ran down from the bulb at the top of the vase, and dipped into the mercury.  The dish was set in the centre of a metal disc connected to two wires: one carrying current to the bulb, and the other being the return wire for the circuit.  The metal body of the vase itself – copper – served to return the current back to the return wire.  Thus, when the vase was placed on the metal disc and the wire from the bulb dipped into the dish of mercury the circuit was completed and the bulb was lit.  Lifting the vase from the metal disc would have switched the light off.  As the cloisonne vases were coated entirely in enamel it is likely that this would have provided sufficient insulation for the vases to have been moved by hand.  The animation provides volunteers with a very visual way of explaining this process.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tq2G4JIWbEw]


The second animation is of the arc light which used to hang in the Picture Gallery at Cragside between c1878 and 1880 – when Armstrong and Joseph Swan installed Swan’s bulbs.  This can no longer be seen at the property, but the animation gives an idea of how it worked – including the noise of operating it.  The animation demonstrates how early arc lights comprised two vertical rods of carbon in an electrical circuit, separated by a gap.  The current jumped across the gap, creating a bright arc.  The distance between the two rods needed to be carefully regulated: if it was too small, the arc would correspondingly be too small to generate sufficient light.  If the gap was too wide, the current would not be able to arc across it.  However, as the rods burned away with use it was important to have a mechanism which automatically moved the rods to keep the gap the same size as the rods became shorter.  Arc lights were more commonly used for outdoor lighting, and not many people experimented with bringing them inside to illuminate their rooms.  This, alongside the cloisonne animation, therefore helps to highlight Armstrong’s willingness to experiment and innovate.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O83e71MJ2H8]


The final animation shows how the hydroelectric system at Cragside worked, with water running down the hill from a man-made lake at the top, and operating a dynamo in the Power House – a separate building containing the dynamos and the batteries, which stored excess electrical charge for periods of high demand.  When more current was required to light more rooms, the butler used a telephone to ring down to the Power House to request more power.  The animation shows this simply as the movement of a lever: this operation might have been performed by switching resistance coils out of the circuit (thus decreasing the resistance and effectively making more current available for the lights in the house), or by switching the batteries into the circuit.  After this happens in the animation we see more lights coming on in the house, represented by the cloisonné lamp in the Library, until it is entirely illuminated.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyZHEZtoQ_Y]


Volunteers will have these animations on tablets, and will be able to use them as explanatory tools when discussing the history of electricity at the property with visitors.  The role of volunteers in providing explanatory interpretative content is very important at Cragside, as at many other country houses.  When discussing how the project could deliver outputs which would best benefit Cragside, representatives of the house were keen to produce something which emphasised the role of volunteers, rather than written interpretative content such as panels or trails.

When drawing up the storyboards for each of the three animations, therefore, Alex and I consulted with Cragside staff in order ensure that the content was accurate and suitable for this purpose: the animations needed to be short – concise and focused without distracting elements – and visual, without relying on text.  The animations will be in use at Cragside in the next month, and will also be available to view online.

[Edit, 4/7/16 – This post now contains final versions of all three of the animations.  Please also see our Downloads page for further supporting information on these animations.]

Electricity, lights, and really bad poetry: adventures in the Tyne and Wear Archives

Today I popped over to Newcastle to visit the Tyne and Wear Archives, based in the Discovery Centre museum, and spent the day perusing documents they keep which belonged to Lord and Lady Armstrong of Cragside. I was looking for several things:

  • information about the electrical equipment and systems in use at Cragside in the period;

  • opinions or responses regarding the electric lighting from visitors or guests, or from Lady (Margaret) Armstrong herself;

  • key dates for the timeline which will form a part of the digital interactive on which I am currently working (and on which more in a later post);

  • anecdotes or fun little stories about electricity in the house which might help to illustrate the video content we are producing in August.

1st LORD ARMSTRONG OF CRAGSIDE painted when he was eighty-eight by Mary Lemon Waller, 1898
Lord Armstrong, painted in 1898 by Mary Lemon Waller. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

As with any archival research, I ended up ticking a few of these boxes, not ticking others, and finding some items which I had not expected. For starters, I found a lovely little testimonial to Lord Armstrong’s character, from a family friend by the name of Emilia de Riano, resident in Granada, Spain, who noted in a letter to him in October 1884 that he was “the dearest creature in the world”.

Information about Cragside’s electrical equipment and some relevant dates were easy enough to find, such as details of the hydroelectric dynamo and its associated batteries. One letter also noted that there was enough water power from the dynamo to produce hydroelectricity to light the house 10 months out of the year; “the remaining two months however are uncertain”. Pendant (hanging) light fittings were installed in the drawing room around July 1884, and plans were being drawn up to electrically light the stables – which had previously been lit by gas – in 1903 in order to reduce the gas bill.

What I was slightly surprised not to find was any mention of Cragside’s hydroelectricity or electric lights in correspondence from those who had recently visited and stayed in the house. Even when this would have been incredibly novel and unusual, in 1884 (a year which, due to the unfathomable expediencies of the Law of Archival Serendipity, was quite generously represented), there was nothing in any letters which otherwise praised the beauty and wonder of the property.

However, something else I found, also from 1884, might help to explain this absence. It appears that in this year Lord Armstrong was having trouble with several of the lamps in the house, and would either have not been using them, or may have sent them to the Edison Swan Company to be examined and replaced, as suggested by a rather apologetic letter from one of the company’s representatives. This provides some nice Cragside-specific support for one of the themes which Graeme Gooday brings out in Domesticating Electricity, that electric lighting was not an unproblematic technology, and early users often found the system to be quite unreliable.

Finally, I was most gratified to find, tucked away at the end of a bundle of letters, an unsigned, undated poem in praise of Cragside. It didn’t mention electricity, as it may well have pre-dated the house’s electrical installation entirely.

O Cragside most beautiful place

On the whole of this earth’s fine face…

…its beautiful apples so red

on which you’re so bountifully fed

And its beautiful fish

That look nice in a dish”

It continued:

And then upon the moor

you find the bird pool

That is the grouse

so far from the house

Then in the fields round about

you find the partridge in and out

Then we have the blackbird sweet

come in autumn as a great treat”

Perhaps it is little wonder the author preferred to remain anonymous to posterity.

The very model of a modern army Colonel: Frederick Trench-Gascoigne at Lotherton Hall

P1.92 Col FRT Gascoigne in rowing boat at Craignish Castle 1930s
Colonel Gascoigne, c1930s. ©Leeds Museums and Galleries

On a recent visit to Lotherton Hall, it occurred to me that the man credited with bringing electric lighting to the house in 1903, the owner Colonel Frederick R. T. Trench-Gascoigne, was also keen on other modern technologies. For example, he had central heating installed at Lotherton, and was an avid motorist (although not, if the stories told are to be believed, always a very careful one!).

As Graeme has noted in Domesticating Electricity, householders needed to actively make a decision to install electricity, and it wasn’t always seen as the best option in comparison with the widespread alternatives; after all, many country houses remained lit by gas, or even by oil lamps and candles, for many decades to come.

Indeed, sometimes keeping the older technologies of lighting could be seen as a status symbol, as the householders were demonstrating that, at a time when the influence and wealth of the traditional aristocracy was waning, they could still afford to employ the servants necessary to maintain these very labour-intensive technologies.

I wonder if the Colonel’s decision was part of a more general tendency towards modernisation and new technologies. This could certainly be said to be true in the case of Sir William Armstrong at Cragside (later Lord Armstrong), who had a reputation as an innovator, and installed Joseph Swan’s filament lights in 1880.

What attitudes did those who first adopted electric lighting have towards other new technologies in this period, and might this give us an insight into why some people made the decision to use electricity in their homes and others, who could also have afforded it, did not?