Bringing power to the people – The disorder surrounding Britain’s electrical power industry

Materials World magazine
1 Oct 2007

I ended my last column by asking how it came about that our electrical power industry, as it evolved in the decade and a half before and after the turn of the century, become so uncoordinated and inadequate that it put us at a serious disadvantage during the First World War.

Electrical supply in Britain

Some of our problems could be placed at the door of Joseph Chamberlain - his enthusiasm for the municipalities played an active part in the new-born electrical industries. Lord Kelvin had famously remarked that he did not understand electricity, so perhaps it is not surprising that our politicians did such a bad job here, beginning with the Electric Light Acts of 1882 and 1888. The upshot was that Britain ended up with too many inefficient and uncoordinated power stations, many of which were DC and hence restricted in size. Our AC stations operated at many different voltages and frequencies, making link-up virtually impossible. The two exceptions were Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, who designed the London Electric Supply Corporation power station at Deptford, and Charles Hesterman Merz, a pioneer of high-voltage three-phase AC power distribution.

In 1914, London was using 70 generating stations, whereas most of New York's electrical needs were supplied by just four. A similar process of concentration had occurred in Detroit, Boston, Hamburg, Berlin and Paris. In some cases, the whole city was supplied by one undertaking on the standard three-phase AC system. Moreover, at the outbreak of war, Germany's electrical manufacturing industry was twice the size of Britain's. Three of our four leading electrical firms - Siemens, British Westinghouse and British Thomson-Houston - were subsidiaries of German or American firms. The First World War could have been lost because of our inadequate electrical industry.

However, under wartime conditions, structural changes to the industry were made that would have taken decades in peacetime. Power stations were forced to link their supplies to meet demand, particularly of the munitions industry, and AC supply was almost mandatory. Steel production was an especial problem - there was a great incentive to recycle scrap steel. Sheffield was our steel centre and it quadrupled its generating capacity during the war.

Changes to electrical supply in the inter-war years

Starting in 1927, the highlight of the interwar years was the construction of the 132kV National Grid. By the outbreak of the Second World War the whole of Britain (except for northeast England) was inter-connected. The number of power stations had decreased from 475 to about 60. There were fears that these larger central stations would be ideal targets for bombers, but this did not prove to be the case. As munitions industries were moved to the west and north to be out of range of bombers, they needed to be fed via more and more pylons. Desperately short of both steel and aluminium, Britain was forced to import huge quantities of pylons and cadmium-copper transmission lines from the USA.

I wonder what Stephen Spender would have thought of those thousands of pylons floating towards Britain? Were he alive today and wanting to continue an electrical theme, he might have written a poem about windmills. Incidentally, he thought that the pylons were made of concrete, as revealed in the opening line of ‘The Pylons', ‘Now over these small hills they have built the concrete that trails black wire'.


Further information:

The UK's National Grid
The Pylons, (pdf file 13KB) Stephen Spender